Monday, April 21, 2014

Often acquired tastes are acquired genes: Probiotics and prebiotics

Gut flora is found in many areas of our digestive tract, particularly in the colon. Whenever we eat anything we feed the microbes that make up our gut flora and/or add new microbes. Much of this flora is made up of bacteria. Not all of it is made up of bacteria though. The much talked about Candida albicans (a.k.a. “the American parasite”) is a fungus that is found predominantly in our digestive tract and mouths.

Candida’s recent fame is more a testament to the power of well-orchestrated Internet campaigns to sell products than to the actual importance of the fungus in determining the health of non-immunodepressed individuals. Claims about Candida, including dubious ones, have been made many times in the past ().

The relationship between the human gut flora and health was a topic of much interest to Élie Metchnikoff (photo below from Wikipedia), who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 for his research on phagocytosis (). Metchnikoff was also a pioneer in the study of aging.

Gut flora discussions often refer to foods and supplements that fall into one of two main categories: probiotics and prebiotics (). Probiotics are generally defined as foods and supplements that include health-promoting live microbes. Prebiotics are non-digestible foods and supplements that feed health-promoting microbes living primarily in the human colon.

Food fermentation, under the appropriate conditions, leads to the formation of natural probiotics. This applies to both animal foods (e.g., cheese, cured meats) and plant foods (e.g., sauerkraut, pickles). Prebiotics occur naturally in many raw plant foods as fiber and resistant starch, and can also be produced through starch retrogradation ().

Again, whenever we eat anything we feed our gut flora. This gut flora is reportedly made up of 10 to the power of 14 cells of bacteria, 10 times more cells than the human body (), plus other types of microbes (e.g., fungi). Different species of microbes in our gut have genomes that are markedly different from ours. Thus we carry in our gut significantly more genes than our own; and genes are selfish.

Genes are selfish in the sense that they seek to propagate themselves. From the perspective of our gut microbes, this can be achieved by inducing the secretion of chemicals that will make us crave foods that will also feed the microbes, whether this will lead to an improvement in our health or not. Even unhealthy human hosts can live long enough to sustain a large number of generations of microbes.

Killing the host human organism may seem like a suicidal strategy for gut microbes, but not if the host organism passes the microbes to other host organisms before the microbes themselves die. Microbes can pass from one human to another through many mechanisms.

So how can we improve our gut flora?

Supplementation or transplantation of microbes have been attempted with mixed but generally positive results ().

Few approaches combine the effectiveness and simplicity of avoiding highly processed industrialized foods. The emphasis here is on inhibiting the growth of unnatural gut flora; flora that has not been carried regularly by our Paleolithic ancestors.

Having done that for a while, which can be difficult due to cravings induced by unnatural gut flora, your own body may become very effective at telling you what is good for you and what is not.

As a side note, just because a food is fermented one cannot assume that it is health-promoting. Bread is a fermented food.

Over the years I have noticed that I prefer eating certain meat dishes cold, and several days after they have been prepared. I wonder if this has anything to do with a small amount of fermentation bringing to life probiotic microbes.