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Could Gut Bacteria Be At The Center Of Our Obesity Epidemic?

Last week I wrote a post on the link between genetically modified crops and increased obesity rates.

While we obviously can’t exclude the role of exercise and lifestyle habits in weight management, I am of the belief there must be other factors contributing to the sharp rise in obesity and chronic diseases like type II diabetes.

This belief may open the door to criticism by those who assert our nation’s health problems are simply the result of fast food, inactivity, and the over-consumption of calories in poor diets.

I don’t think we can exclude these factors from the equation, however new research is increasing our understanding of changes in the body that result in metabolic syndrome.

The bottom line is as a species, the way we live, the way we eat, the foods we eat, how the food is produced, etc, has all changed dramatically in the past century. To think that the human body wouldn’t be experiencing biological adaptations in the process would be short-sighted to say the least.

In today’s post I’ll be discussing the possible role of bacteria in the rise of obesity rates.

More after the jump…

Scientists and researchers are discovering that the “microbe” (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms and their genes) that live on or in all of us, is far more important for our health than anyone imagined even a few years ago.

The majority of research on chronic illness and disease, including obesity, is currently centered around the impacts of inflammation on the human body.

It’s inflammation that results in an immune system over-load that progressively weakens and breaks the body down at the cellular level.

Microbes in the gastrointestinal tract are at the focal point of research since the GI tract is the largest reservoir of bacteria (both good and bad) in the body.

Scientists believe we’re carrying around approximately 3-4 pounds of microbes in our gut, somewhere along the lines of 100 trillion microbial cells and 1,000 microbial species.

The good bacteria, frequently referred to as “probiotics” serve important functions in the human body including:

- helping to digest fiber and other components of food that we couldn’t digest otherwise.

- helping to assimilate and synthesize vitamins and nutrients

- helping to stimulate the immune system

- helping to suppress microorganisms that cause food poisoning and free radical oxidation.

The bottom line is microbes (both good and bad) are at the center of almost every function of the human body. They’re directly tied into immune response and cellular function.

When the balances are good, the human body functions optimally and is free from disease. When the balances are off, the human body breaks down on all levels resulting in diminished health and premature aging.

I’ll spare you the boring details on the various types of microbes and their impact on metabolic functions. The important point for our discussion is the fact that these microbes are not static. In other words, they’re constantly changing and evolving.

Our environment plays a large role in this evolutionary process that begins at birth. Scientists will tell us that we’re microbe magnets as babies. As soon as we leave the sterile environment of the womb, we pick up microorganisms from our mothers as we pass through the vaginal canal.

From an evolution standpoint, we’re meant to attract these microorganisms because that’s the initial signal to activate our immune system. No surprises here, but this is why babies are more prone to illness than adults.

The more our bodies are exposed to various forms of bacteria and viruses, the better inept our immune system is at dealing with them.

However, this is a catch to all of this. As we age there are a lot of factors that can influence our immune response. Dietary habits and lifestyle factors with exercise, stress management, and exposure to toxins, are just a few.

In short, these factors determine whether the “bad guys” out-number the “good guys” and which group is winning the war at the cellular level.

The possible microbial connection to obesity…

One of the primary questions researchers are looking to answer is, could the microbes in our intestines be making us fat?

Early indicators point to a resounding “YES” although the research is still inconclusive and there are a lot of dots to be connected.

It appears however that lean individuals have much different gut microbiota than those who are obese. Scientists first discovered this difference by looking at laboratory mice raised in sterile environments.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis were the first to demonstrate that the transfer of gut bacteria from conventional to germ-free mice produced a significant increase in body fat, even though the animals didn’t eat any more food than they did before.

Proc. Natl. Acad, Sci. USA 101:15718, 2004

This was an astonishing finding to say the least. Even more eye-opening was the fact that when the researchers transplanted gut bacteria from the obese mice to the germ-free mice, they ended up gaining twice as much body fat.

Granted this was an animal study and the research is inconclusive in humans. However, researchers are now beginning to understand the link gut microbiota has on weight in humans.

Here are a few examples:

Babies with higher levels of “Bifidobacteria” during their first year of life were less likely to be overweight by age seven than babies with lower levels.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: 87:534, 2008

Pregnant women who were overweight or who gained excess weight during pregnancy had different gut microbiota than pregnant women who were normal weight or didn’t gain excess weight.

Br. J. Nutr. 104:83, 2010

Among 1,255 infants born in the Boston area between 1999 and 2002, those delivered by Caesarean section were twice as likely to be obese at age three as those born vaginally. The researchers speculated that the difference in C-section babies’ gut bacteria may have accounted for the increased weight.

DOI: 10:1136.archdischild- 2011-301141.

While none of these studies fully explain the possible link to microbes and obesity, it provides us with some clues.

There are some promising new medical procedures where individuals with GI tract infections and illnesses are undergoing bacteria transplants.

As gross as it sounds, what they’re doing is transplanting fecal matter from a healthy individual into to colon of the afflicted patient. By transplanting bacteria from a healthy colon into the diseased colon, the idea is that the healthy bacteria will grow and take over.

In a recent review of 317 patients infected with “C.difficile” (clostridium difficile), fecal transplants resulted in a 92 percent cure rate!

Cli. Infect. Dis. 53: 994: 2011.
J. Clin. Gastroenterol. 44: 354, 2010.

Ok, let’s tie this all back to obesity and the tag-a-long components of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.

Once again, this is all speculative and new science but researchers may be on to something.

In a Danish study for example, men with type II diabetes were tested and shown to have different gut microbiota than men without the disease.

This led the researchers to investigate whether “microbe transplants” could lessen insulin resistance. They tested 18 men and half of the group was given fecal transplants like discussed earlier.

After six weeks, insulin resistance and triglycerides declined in those who got the lean men’s bacteria from the fecal transplants.

Bottom line…

Obviously a lot of this research is speculative at this point but I do believe it’s taking us in the right direction.

I have to believe that as our environment has changed, so too has the evolutionary adaptations of microbes. This is similar to how bacterial and viral infections have changed along with how they’re treated.

It used to be that a shot of penicillin would pretty much take care of most infections. This isn’t the case anymore. Physicians are now being more cautious about carelessly prescribing antibiotics for every sniff and sniffle their patients complain about.

So where does all this leave us from a practical standpoint in the here and now?

Here are a few suggestions to help maintain a healthy balance of microbes:

- Follow a supportive nutrition diet that promotes a healthy gastrointestinal tract.

- Consume fermented foods on occasion to help support healthy gut bacteria.

- Take a daily probiotic to support digestive system health.

- Avoid heavy sugar consumption along with processed and refined foods.

- Avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.

- Don’t over protect babies from encountering every germ and bit of bacteria. Let their immune system develop naturally.

Bottom line is if you’re overweight, the first line of defense, or in this case “offense” would be to focus on gastrointestinal health. Instead of focusing solely on exercise and significantly reducing calories, pay close attention to digestive function.

This is one of the main reasons I recommend all my weight loss clients start off with a herbal cleanse at the beginning of a weight loss program.

The Advocare Herbal Cleanse is my top pick and one of the best products I’ve tested. By working on establishing a good balance of bacteria in the gut, this sets conditions right for weight loss to occur. Click on the following link to learn more or to purchase the Advocare Herbal Cleanse.

It all goes back to the cellular level. Excess weight gain is simply a sign of imbalance in the human body. Address the imbalances from the inside out and not necessarily vice-versa.

Tis my two cents for what it’s worth. As new research becomes available on this subject, you’ll be the first to know. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Hormones & Health.