Feeding My Curiosity – And My Microbes

humanWe’re delighted today to have a guest post from Alanna Collen, author of 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness.

In honor of this insightful book, we’re presenting a double offer today:
50% off uBiome gut kits from now until midnight tonight (August 14, 2015), if you use the discount code 10HUMAN50 at ubiome.com.

People who use this code will also be entered into a draw to win one of ten free 10% Human books! Thanks for the inspiration, Alanna. Take it away.

At the age of twenty-eight, I developed hay fever and eczema for the first time in my life.

The acne I had had as a teenager returned after years of absence. And I began to suffer from respiratory infections with the apparent immune naivety of a toddler. I had just finished a 14 month-long course of multiple oral antibiotics, intended to treat an infection I had picked up while working as a tropical biologist in Malaysia.

I visited my doctor. What could I do about the acne and the infections, I asked. His response?

Take antibiotics.

I protested – it seemed to me that it was antibiotics that had got me in this situation in the first place. “Impossible,” he said. “Only left-field alternative health types think that disrupting ‘friendly bacteria’ can cause health problems.”

I was far from a ‘left-field, alternative health type’ – I had a PhD in evolutionary biology and no particular interest in unconventional therapies and pseudo-scientific theories. But despite his discouragement, my evolutionary outlook on the world made me think. If we had evolved with our friendly bacteria for millennia, wasn’t it quite a stretch of the imagination to assume that disrupting our inner ecosystem might not harm our own bodies?

Delving into the scientific literature that afternoon, I discovered that a whole new world of microbiological research had opened up in the past decade. Our microbes, it seemed, were connected not only to hay fever and acne, but a huge range of illnesses, from autoimmune diseases to mental health conditions, and even obesity.

What’s more, these illnesses were on the rise, having been quite rare just 60 years ago.

Over the coming weeks and months, my interest in, and knowledge of, microbiome science deepened, expanding from a personal quest to understand my own health problems into a broader curiosity about how microbes contributed to the health and happiness of all of us.

I learned about the role of microbes in weight gain, allergic disorders, autoimmune diseases and mental health conditions. I read about the impact of antibiotics on the microbiota of both children and adults. I discovered the amazing potential of faecal microbiota transplants to restore people to health after C. diff infections had brought them close to death. And I realized the role that diet had to play in shaping a beneficial community of microbes in the gut.

Soon, I had pulled together a story of this fascinating new science that led to me being commissioned to write a popular science book on the microbiota. Now published, the result of my efforts is 10% Human: How your body’s microbes hold the key to health and happiness.

So what of my own microbes, I wondered as I wrote?

Would it be possible to detect the impact of my months and years of antibiotics in the make-up of my own inner ecosystem? And could I improve the community I harbored by putting what I had learned about diet into practice?

Eager to begin my own ‘n=1’ experiment, I sent a stool sample to uBiome after eating my normal omnivorous diet, including the sugar, meat, cheese and alcohol that I regularly consumed. I then embarked on two weeks of vegetarian living, cutting out meat and simple sugars, and increasing my intake of dietary fiber.

I ate more legumes, grains, beans and peas, and bigger portions of vegetables, and a few more fermented foods than usual. At the end of my fortnight of high-fibre eating, I sent a second sample to uBiome and waited to see if I had encouraged any of the beneficial species I’d been writing about.

One species in particular had captured my attention. A team of Belgian researchers, led by Professor Patrice Cani, had discovered that a member of the phylum Verrucomicrobia, known as Akkermansia muciniphila, seemed to be found in greater numbers in lean people compared without overweight and obese people.

In mice, Cani’s team showed that Akkermansia encouraged the cells of the gut lining to produce a thick mucus layer, and helped to prevent a bacterial compound from crossing into the blood stream, where it provoked the inflammation that went along with weight gain. Not only did it shore up the gut lining, but Akkermansia numbers were easily boosted – by eating fiber.

Sure enough, when I received my results from uBiome following my dietary intervention, one species stood out to me. Before my dietary shift I had had no detectable Akkermansia.

In just two weeks of eating more fiber, I had at least 100 times more of this intriguing bacterium occupying my gut.

Whether it can noticeably improve my health remains to be seen, but I know I’ll be doing my best to keep it – and other species that benefit from fiber – as a prominent member of my much cherished microbiota.