The morning before Christmas eve, I’m sitting here in the dining room munching happily on the bits and pieces of what’s left of our gingerbread house that was only erected to its full glory the night before. I have not consumed this amount of carbohydrates in over a year.
Inside, a few species of my extensive gut microbe community are screaming bloody murder.
When you eat, you’re not only feeding your own fleshy vessel, but also the 100 trillion of microbugs that thrive in your intestines. Hardly “along for the ride”, these bugs not only help us digest foodstuff, ferment carbohydrates and proteins but also heavily impact our metabolism and general health. Depending on their composition, they tweak our risk of cardiovascular diseases, Type II diabetes and may even cause obesity in humans. There’s tantalizing evidence that their reach extends to the brain, influencing mood, anxiety and cognition in mice.
However, the gut microbiota* is a fluid, ever-changing beast. In one previous study, researchers transplanted gut-free mice with fresh or frozen human poop to inoculate them with a microbiome of known composition. When researchers switched these mice’s plant-based diet to a high-fat, high-sugar one, the structure of the established microbiome changed within a single day: some species dwindled in number, while others exploded onto the intestinal stage, bringing with them their particular metabolic tricks. (*The word “microbiome” refers to the set of genes in the gut bugs).
Similar diet-induced changes have been found in humans. When babies are weaned from their mothers’ milk and switch to solid food, their gut bug community simultaneously go through tumultuous changes. The gut bugs of African hunter-gatherers vastly differ from those in people grown on a Western diet. But these changes take weeks, even lifetimes. Just how fast can the microbiome adapt and change to a new diet?
In a new study, researchers recruited ten volunteers and put them on two drastically different extreme diets for 5 days – as you can see below, the plant-based diet was rich in grains, fruits and vegetables (high-carb and high-fibre), while the animal-based diet consisted of meats, eggs and cheeses (high-fat, high-protein and low/no-fibre). Each day, the volunteers handed in a poop sample for the researchers to monitor.
In general, the animal-based diet had a greater impact on gut flora than the plant-based one. It significantly increased the diversity of gut flora, enriching 22 species whilst decreasing the fibre-intake associated Prevotella in a life-long vegetarian on this meaty diet. The plant-based diet, on the other hand, only increased the abundance of 3 species, mostly those associated with carbohydrate fermentation.
Many of the changes made sense. An animal-based diet enriched putrefactive microbes, shifting carbohydrate fermentation into amino acid digestion, thus helping the body break down the onslaught of heaps animal protein. Several strains of immigrant bacteria – particularly those used for cheese- and sausage-making –settled down and made themselves comfortable in the native gut flora community. The meat-heavy diet also triggered microbes to activate pathways that degrade cancer-causing compounds found in charred meats, and enhanced the synthesis of vitamins.
On the other hand, several strains of potentially health-negative bacteria also multiplied in the meat-eaters. On a high-fat diet, we excrete more bile – a bitter fluid that may ruin a good fish dish – to deal with the digestion of fat. Bile is toxic to many gutbugs, but not to the mighty Bilophila (“bile-loving”) wadsworthia – a bile-resistant bacterium stimulated by saturated fats in milk that may cause intestinal inflammation, at least in mice. The high-fat content in the animal-based diet also triggered increased levels of microbe-produced DCA, which is previously linked to liver cancer in mice. However, as of now there’s no evidence that these risks also apply to people, and researchers caution against making health-related judgments (although some can’t resist the temptation).
On the whole, plant- and animal-based diets induced changes in host microbiome gene structure that resembled those of herbivorous and carnivorous mammals within a few days. Furthermore, the volunteer’s microbiome reversed back to their previous composition only 2 days after the end of the experiment. Researchers believe we might be looking at a fast-forwarded movie of millions of years of co-evolution between humans and their microbugs: when animal food sources fell scarce, our ancestors were forced to switch to a plant-heavy diet; a flexible gut-bug community could quickly and appropriately shift their repertoire and function to help digestion, thus increasing the flexibility of human diets and chances of survival.
Thus, when you gobble down the vast selection of Christmas dishes this year, remember to thank the flexibility of your gut flora for your diverse digestive powers. And remember that we can’t say one diet is better than the other for our microbiota; the take-home message is that they are incredible flexible, more so than we previously thought. In the end, it still comes down to the age-old wisdom: you are what you eat.
David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, Gootenberg DB, Button JE, Wolfe BE, Ling AV, Devlin AS, Varma Y, Fischbach MA, Biddinger SB, Dutton RJ, & Turnbaugh PJ (2013). Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature PMID: 24336217