Did you know that microorganisms that live in your gastrointestinal tract may have a huge impact on your weight? It does not seem intuitive to think that microorganisms living in your gut could potentially make or break your weight loss plan, but research is showing more and more that this just might be the case.
What Is Gut Flora?
Your gut flora is the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes that are present in your gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the bacteria alone outnumber your own cells by 10 to 1. These microorganisms have a lot to do with your overall health. Researchers are finding that there may be connections between gut flora and virtually every aspect of a person's physical and mental well-being or illness.
How Do the Microbes Get There?
A person's gut flora is first established at birth. Babies' guts are colonized with bacteria when they first contact the world outside the womb, usually from the birth canal and their mother's skin. From there, gut flora is influenced mainly by what the person ingests. This includes breast milk, formula, and every other food product that is taken in. Medications, especially antibiotics, can change the balance of a person's gut flora, and they have a tendency to diminish "good" bacteria, allowing "bad" bacteria to flourish. This can result in many different disorders.
But How Can Gut Flora Possibly Influence Weight Loss?
Studies are being done routinely now into gut flora and its potential impacts on varying aspects of human health. A series of studies was done by a group of researchers that showed that gut flora has an impact on weight.
First, baby mice were raised in a sterile environment, so they didn't have any microbes. Then, some of them were given microbes from an obese human while others were given microbes from that human's lean twin. The mice were all fed exactly the same diet and kept in the same conditions but separate from each other. The mice with the lean humans' gut flora stayed lean while the mice with the obese humans' gut flora become obese.
The study was repeated, but this time all of the mice were kept together. This time, all of the mice stayed lean. Scientists believe that the results of this study indicate that the mice with the microbes from the obese person ingested microbes from the lean person in the feces of the mice carrying them, thus "inoculating" themselves with lean person microbes.
In the final study in the series, mice carrying obese person microbes were given some microbe species from a lean person. When only 39 strains of bacteria were transplanted, the mice became obese anyway. However, when 54 strains of lean person bacteria were transplanted, the mice stayed lean.
Scientists surmised from these studies that certain bacteria perform certain jobs related to digestion, metabolism, and maintaining a healthy body weight. People with a narrow range of microbes present in their guts might be more prone to becoming obese than those with a big variety of microbes in their systems (Vanessa K. Ridaura1, 2013).
Studies done in humans have also shown a correlation between gut microbes and weight (Emmanuelle Le Chatelier, 2012), but there are other factors, such as diet, exercise, and genetics at work as well.
Can You "Fix" Your Gut Flora?
It is possible to reintroduce good microbes to your gut through ingesting it. The main sources for doing this are:
- Probiotics. These are supplements that are taken orally. They contain bacterial colonies of helpful or "good" gut bacteria. There are a wide variety of choices with varying numbers and types of bacteria.
Fermented foods. Before the advent of modern preservation techniques, fermentation was widely used to increase the shelf life of many different types of food. Fermented foods contain colonies of friendly gut bacteria as well as the materials they need to feed on. Some fermented foods to add to your healthy diet include:
- Miso: fermented soybeans, rice, or barley.
- Lassi: an Indian yogurt drink.
- Sauerkraut: fermented cabbage.
- Kombucha: fermented tea.
- Kefir: fermented milk drink.
- Kimchi: Spicy Korean fermented cabbage.
Use the following methods to help friendly microbes flourish in your gut:
- Limit your consumption of processed foods and sugar, which are not good food sources for helpful microbes.
- Avoid antibiotics whenever possible, including those that might be present in meat. Consider taking probiotics and/or increasing your consumption of fermented foods if you need to have a course of antibiotics.
Kefir: Fermented Milk
Kefir is a fermented milk drink. Its consistency is a bit like a drinkable yogurt (though it's possible to create firmer consistencies), but the process of making the two products differs. Yogurt is made with bacterial cultures while kefir is made by adding kefir "grains" of bacterial and yeast colonies to goat, sheep, or cow milk and allowing it to ferment. Some of the bacteria that are used break down lactose, so many people who are lactose intolerant aren't bothered by kefir. You can find a recipe for a savory kefir smoothie here.
Turmeric: A Gut-Healthy Spice
Although this spice and its active ingredient, curcumin, won't introduce good microbes into your system, it may be able to help you lose weight by its other actions on the gut. It can aid in the digestion of food, lower stomach acid levels, and may help to seal the lining of the stomach and intestines. These actions can all help create a better environment for your microbes and a healthier weight loss for you. Turmeric can be taken in a supplement form, and care should be taken that the ingredients are organic and of high quality. Adding black pepper extract (piperine) to the supplement helps the body use the turmeric more efficiently, as well. You can learn more about turmeric at "Top 10 Reasons You Should Take Turmeric," and this Turmeric-Curcumin Complex Supplement is a great one.
More research is being done all the time on human gut flora and what it means for our health. Weight loss is just one area that is being explored. The development of asthma, allergies, depression, and even autism may be influenced by a person's gut microbes. Doing what you can to ensure that your gut is a favorable place for a wide variety of microbes to live can improve your weight loss efforts and your overall health.
- Emmanuelle Le Chatelier, T. N.-M. (2012, April 12). Richness of human gut microbiome correlates with metabolic markers. Retrieved from nature.com: DOI: 10.1038/nature12506
- Vanessa K. Ridaura1, J. J. (2013, Sept. 6). Gut Microbiota from Twins Discordant for Obesity Modulate Metabolism in Mice. Retrieved from sciencemag.org: DOI: 10.1126/science.1241214