The make up of bacteria in our guts is unique to all of us, like a fingerprint
They can influence the risk of problems, from heart disease to diabetes
Five volunteers agreed to have their guts tested in the name of science
All of us have trillions of different bacteria living in our guts and amazingly our precise bacterial mix is unique – like fingerprints, no two people’s combinations of gut bacteria are exactly the same.
The different species of gut bacteria are essential for digestion and helping produce vitamins.
But it’s increasingly clear that gut bacteria – known as the microbiome – influence your risk of many health problems, from heart disease and inflammatory bowel conditions to type 2 diabetes.
Professor Tim Spector, a leading expert and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, says you can tell more about a person from their stool than their DNA. The Mail tested the theory on five volunteers
They may even affect your mood and weight by controlling the amount of energy extracted from food and how much your blood sugar rises after eating.
‘The diversity of microbes in our bodies is 30 per cent lower than it was 50 years ago, which may contribute to the obesity epidemic,’ says Tim Spector, a leading expert and professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London.
Scientists are still identifying which bacteria are beneficial and how to boost them. ‘It’s hoped that in future we may be able to manipulate gut bacteria to overcome illnesses, such as irritable bowel syndrome and even obesity,’ says Professor Spector.
He heads the British Gut Project, created a year ago to build up a microbial profile of the population to better understand their effect on health.
This is being done by testing people’s gut bacteria via a small faecal sample analysed in a lab in America. Volunteers pay £75 and receive a profile of their bacteria.
Professor Spector says you can tell more about a person from their stool than their DNA. ‘While we share 99.9 per cent of our DNA with others, we only ever have about 10 to 20 per cent of our gut bacteria in common.’
Zoe Budd, 30, lives with her fiance Darren and their two children, aged seven and one, in Middlesex. Zoe tested positive for the ‘lean microbe’ christensenella
Our gut bacteria are partly inherited from our parents, but are strongly affected by diet, lifestyle and environment.
‘You can alter your gut bacteria for better or worse in a matter of days through the lifestyle choices you make,’ he says.
Dietary fibre, exercise and sleep boost the variety and number of ‘good bugs’; junk food and antibiotics kill them off, allowing ‘bad’ bacteria to flourish.
To see how diet and behaviour can affect the microbiome, we asked five healthy people with very different lifestyles to take the British Gut Project test.
Professor Spector then analysed the results ‘blind’ – he knew nothing about our volunteers’ lifestyles – and Good Health gave them a ‘gut health’ rating.
Our experiment revealed just how influential our bacteria really are and could make a difference to YOUR life, too…
SKINNY MICROBE DEFIES BAD DIET
Zoe Budd, 30, lives with her fiance Darren and their two children, aged seven and one, in Hillingdon, Middlesex. She is a therapist at a London medi-spa. She is 6 ft and 9 st 9 lb (Body Mass Index/BMI: 18, healthy).
I have the world’s worst diet yet I’m effortlessly very slim. Today, I had three Walnut Whips for breakfast and I love croissants, bacon sandwiches, cookies and cakes.
I try to have a proper meal with vegetables with my children every day. But I always have pudding, such as chocolate cake with clotted cream. People always ask me where it all goes.
EXPERT VERDICT: What stands out in Zoe’s sample is she’s the only one with christensenella, the ‘lean microbe’, which only last year my lab found was linked to weight. It’s so new we aren’t sure how it works, but we know it protects against accumulating fat around the organs, which is linked to a raised risk of type 2 diabetes and #cancer.
The ‘lean microbe’ is likely to be inherited, and you don’t lose it over time. We don’t know yet how easy it is to acquire, but we’re working on it. It’s been found to reduce weight gain when transplanted into mice, for example.
One in ten people has detectable christensenella and Zoe has 13 times the normal amount. She could sell these microbes!
The rest of Zoe’s gut bacteria is a mixed picture and I suspect she possibly doesn’t have a great overall diet. Most people’s guts are dominated by two classes of bacteria, firmicutes and bacteroidetes, and her firmicutes are dominating.
They create chemicals that fuel our cells, enabling the body’s systems to communicate with one another properly. An imbalance is a sign of poor diet and is normally associated with weight gain.
But Zoe has a reasonable profile of bacteroides and prevotella, bacteria that thrive on fibre. Eating a greater variety of vegetables could improve her balance.
GUT HEALTH RATING: 6/10
Zoe says: I’m excited to discover I have this amazing microbe, probably from my slim parents.
Sometimes I get too skinny and try to put on weight, but I don’t think there’s any point now as this microbe means it won’t make much difference.
I can’t be complacent about my health, though, so I will try to eat more fruit and vegetables.
RED WINE BOOSTS BACTERIA MIX
Tim Pearson, 61, is married and lives in Oxfordshire. He works in the wine trade, co-owning a vineyard. He is 6 ft and 13 st 2 lb (BMI: 24.9, healthy).
Tim Pearson, 61, is married and lives in Oxfordshire. Astonishingly Tim’s profile contained 100 times the normal microbes, many African, and very rare in human guts. His profile looks more African than European
I eat well, starting with a smoothie of fruit, greens, nuts, seeds, organic yoghurt and coconut milk. For lunch, it’s soup and wholemeal toast; dinner will be meat or fish with plenty of vegetables and potatoes. I drink a large glass of red or white wine five days a week, and maybe two glasses at the weekend, and enjoy the odd slice of cake. I don’t have any health problems.
EXPERT VERDICT: Tim has very few firmicutes and bacteroidetes; 50 per cent of his bacteria are proteobacteria, which normally form less than 5 per cent and are associated with mild inflammation (and could suggest low-grade infection).
This bacteria is also linked to living in developing countries. Even more unusually he has 100 times the normal load of microbes, some from soil, many African, that are so rare in human guts we don’t know what they do. In fact, his profile looks more African than European.
Malcolm Barbour, 44, a software developer, lives with his wife and two children, ten and 13, in Orpington, Kent. Malcolm has a strange and unbalanced looking microbiome
Overall, it’s a fair mix. I’d be surprised if he was ill or fat. After my analysis, I learned Tim is a wine drinker. While you can’t see this in individual bacteria, it may explain his reasonably healthy mix, as moderate amounts of alcohol boost bacterial diversity.
Red wine contains 100 chemicals that microbes feed off. Too much, however, #makes microbes produce inflammatory toxins.
GUT HEALTH RATING: 6/10
Tim says: It’s reassuring that my gut looks OK. I regularly visit South Africa for work and lived there for two years in the early Nineties so the African microbes must come from there. Professor Spector is right: I don’t struggle with weight. I have a 34 in waist.
PASTA AND RICE TIP THE BALANCE
Malcolm Barbour, 44, a software developer, lives with his wife and two children, ten and 13, in Orpington, Kent. At 5 ft 10 in, he weighs 11 st 4 lb (BMI: 23, healthy).
I AM a keen marathon runner and train five days a week, running 50 miles in total. I might have porridge, toast and marmalade for breakfast, then grab a cheese or tuna sandwich for lunch, and I eat lots of pasta and white rice with dinner.
I snack on yoghurt, muesli and the odd bit of fruit. I don’t have any health issues apart from mild IBS symptoms sometimes. I’d expect my gut bacteria to be healthy.
EXPERT VERDICT: Malcolm has a strange and unbalanced looking microbiome. Most people have 5 per cent of a bacterium called pseudomonas, but in Malcolm it makes up about half of his gut bacteria – we don’t know what triggers it.
In some people, pseudomonas can cause infections affecting the guts or lungs, while in others it’s harmless. He is low in firmicutes – an imbalance is linked to poor diet and obesity.
There are some bacteroidetes, which indicate he eats some fibre, but overall his gut is so unbalanced I wonder if he’s had an illness or just eats an unhealthy diet high in refined carbs such as white rice or pasta. He also has a slight increase in enterobacteria, associated with inflammation, which is linked to heart disease and cancer and has been implicated in IBS. These inflammation-causing microbes are more common in the obese and those with junk food diets.
GUT HEALTH RATING 5/10
Malcolm says: This is a bit of a surprise. I thought I had a reasonable diet, but when I look more closely I can see it is heavy in refined carbs.
I’d been told my diet lacked fruit and vegetables and had started adding salad to my sandwiches. It’s clearly not enough, so I will make much more effort.
JUNK FOOD ‘FEEDS’ OBESITY BACTERIA
Claudia McGloin, 40, is a single aesthetic nurse who runs clinics in Ireland and London. She is 4 ft 10 in and 10 st 7 lb (BMI: 31.9, obese).
Claudia McGloin, 40, is a single aesthetic nurse who runs clinics in Ireland and London. Her microbial profile had an imbalance associated with poor diet and obesity, probably because she eats lots of processed food
I work long hours and travel a lot. On a typical day I’ll skip breakfast, then have a couple of cups of coffee, probably with a bar of chocolate and maybe a packet of crisps.
I’ll often skip lunch. I have a big dinner – it could be healthy, such as vegetables and chicken, but when I’m tired I’ll often opt for a ready-meal. I’m dreading seeing my results.
EXPERT VERDICT: Claudia’s microbial profile is odd. She has very few firmicutes – which normally make up about a third. An imbalance is associated with poor diet and obesity.
People with reduced gut diversity often eat a lot of processed foods. A junk food diet can halve the number of firmicutes in the gut in just ten days.
Claudia works long hours and travel a lot, which leads to an unhealthy diet
On a typical day she skips breakfast, then has a couple of cups of coffee, probably with a bar of chocolate and maybe a packet of crisps
It seems chemicals in junk food, particularly emulsifiers, kill off good bacteria, allowing unhealthy ones to flourish. Claudia’s levels of the pro-inflammatory enterobacteriaceae, also linked to obesity and junk diets, are 50 times the normal level.
In Europeans this bacteria is closely associated with poor health and, in old people, frailty, putting them at risk of falls, hospitalisation and earlier death.
Claudia needs a total reboot of her microbiome. I recommend intermittent #fasting, such as the 5:2 diet (where you eat just 500 calories for two days a week). Studies show the more we extend our overnight fast, the more diverse our microbes, the more healthy chemicals are produced and the less weight we gain.
Periods of fasting also lengthen the time our microbes have to rest, strengthening how they interact with our gut lining, which may increase our metabolism. Claudia might also consider probiotics.
GUT HEALTH RATING: 4/10
Claudia says: I thought my results would be bad, but not this bad. It’s been the kick-start I needed, and I’m now taking a probiotic, trying the 5:2 diet and exercising more. I feel better already.
FASTING IS GOOD FOR GUT BACTERIA
Martin Welch, 53, is married with three adult children. He is a chief engineer in the automotive industry and lives in Warwickshire. He’s 5 ft 8 in and 15 st (BMI: 28, overweight).
Martin Welch, 53, is married with three adult children. He is a chief engineer in the automotive industry and lives in Warwickshire. Eighty-five per cent of Martin’s gut bacteria are firmicutes, which is very unusual
I’ve always been stocky, but have been getting bigger with age.
I’d like to lose weight. I work stressful 12-hour days and grabbing food on the go, such as pizza and pastries, goes with the territory. I don’t tend to eat vegetables or much fruit.
I’ve had digestive problems almost my whole life, with severe pain and bloating after eating. I get a bit of joint pain but I’m rarely ill.
TOP TIPS FOR A HEALTHY GUT
If you eat a diverse range of real foods containing plenty of fibre and are happy to experiment, you can’t go far wrong for your gut, says Professor Spector.
n All vegetables are good, but the very best are the high-fibre root vegetables, particularly the ‘super’ bacteria fertilisers, Jerusalem and globe artichokes, chicory roots, leeks, onions and garlic. Other common vegetables, such as potatoes, are OK if you also eat the skins: sweet potatoes are better, Professor Spector adds.
n Apples, pears and bananas are good if eaten whole or blended in a smoothie. However their juice alone contains no fibre, so isn’t as healthy a choice.
n Nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, green tea and coffee also help boost good bacteria.
n Probiotics have only been shown to clearly work when the gut is very sick due to poor health or antibiotics. It’s a case of trial and error, but look for those containing five to ten billion colony forming units (CFUs).
EXPERT VERDICT: This is a very abnormal result – 85 per cent of Martin’s gut bacteria are firmicutes. While firmicutes are normal, an imbalance – linked to a junk food diet – can be associated with weight gain.
In Martin’s gut they’re so dominant other bacteria can’t get a look in, which may impair his immune system.
He has particularly low levels of anti-inflammatory faecalibacterium prausnitzii, raising his chance of inflammatory gut conditions and possibly allergies.
I’d say this is the gut bacteria of a man who is unwell or eats a very poor diet, or both. He could also be overweight or have diabetes.
He needs a radical overhaul, going vegetarian for a few months to vary his diet and trying the 5:2 diet.
He could try a probiotic and increase his dairy intake – just a crumb of unpasteurised cheese contains more than ten billion microbes and encourages others to grow.
GUT HEALTH RATING: 2/10
Martin says: I’ve overhauled my diet based on my result. I’m eating piles of roasted vegetables, taking celery, nuts and soup to work, and eating berries at breakfast. I’m also taking prebiotics containing fibre.
VISIT britishgut.org. The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat by Professor Tim Spector is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99.
Source: Daily Mail
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