Health in the Gut of the Beholder?

I had the fortune of being able to attend the American College of Nutrition’s annual conference in Florida last month. It was fascinating to experience the plethora of information and ongoing research linking the impact of diet on disease prevention and treatment.

The conference theme this year was ‘Optimising Brain Health’ and a hot topic repeatedly mentioned throughout the three day event was the ‘Microbiome’, the en vogue term for bacteria that lives in our gut.

Moderating at the event was one of the most influential advocates of the microbiome theory, neurologist Dr Perlmutter. He hypotheses that dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria) is the common denominator in the functional process for every chronic inflammatory disease. Quite some statement, linking your gut to neurodegenerativedisease, heart disease and diabetes, but the evidence put forward was fascinating.

So why is a Neurologist so interested in our digestive tracts?                                                                                                                  

Enter Dr Macfabe, a neuroscientist at Western University, Canada who presented compelling research from his laboratory where the focus is on Autism. The latest data adds even more weight to the ever-growing evidence about how the microbiome can impact our general health and specifically our brains.

Certain types of bacteria (found in autistic children) produce a neurotransmitter, Propionic acid. Dr Macfabe discovered the remarkable effects of this compound when he administered it to rats. He observed specific behaviours:

  • Tics

  • Preferred objects

  • Peculiar mannerisms similar to autism

  • Inflammatory changes

  • Social isolation

gut health pics

It’s given rise to a belief gaining popularity that autism could potentially be treated by ‘resetting’ an imbalanced gut microbiome. So extraordinary is his research, he was recently invited to present at a Nobel forum in Sweden.

Microbiome research is still expanding, but it’s convincing enough for some doctor’s to trial a method called faecal transplantation for patients with autism in an attempt to ‘reset’ an imbalanced gut bacteria population. Of course, this hasn’t been approved by food and drug administrations for this purpose yet, but anecdotal results reversing autistic symptoms are encouraging.

But I thought autism was a condition fixed  from birth and there weren’t any cures?

Speaker Dr Martha Herbert, introduced the concept of ‘Neuroplasticity’, the ability of the brain to change as we grow. A passionate paediatric neurologist and brain development researcher at Harvard, she believes autism is an emergent disease. She challenges the previous theory of “genes or brain “hard wiring” being the mainstay of what determines neurodevelopmental conditions like autism”. Which ties in rather nicely with Dr Macfabe’s research on the neurological effects of the microbiome and why we may see huge changes in future autism management.

OK, I get it. There’s a whole load of bacteria in my gut. It may have a role in disease all over the body. It may even be the focus for treatments of conditions like Alzheimer’s and Autism in the future. Now what?

Well, before we start arranging private faecal transplants and trying to reverse those colonic washouts the wellness industry convinced us were anti-aging and good for us, it’s important to remember that this research is still in its infancy. No national health system board in their right mind would approve treatments as safe based on limited data and evidence, and rightly so. If we want to uphold our public safety values, new treatments should be rigorously questioned and treated with skepticism before being rolled out to the general population.

But now that we know how influential our microbiome could be to general health, what safe and practical steps can we take to mitigate our risks of chronic inflammatory disease using the current evidence?

I’ll be doing a round up of tips you can use to improve your microbiome, including the best foods to include in your diet, video recipes on YouTube and more in the next few weeks before the new year. I hope you enjoyed this, please send me any questions, suggestions, comments and do share!

Dr Rupy Aujla

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