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An Interview with Ana Maria Moise, author of The Gut Microbiome: Exploring the Connection between Microbes, Diet and Health

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 May Issue Newsletter

Julie Rawson, Executive Director, NOFA/Mass

Come to Ana Maria’s workshop on Thursday, June 13, 2019 in Springfield, MA.  I read this book and found it very thorough. It helped me really understand for the first time the role of all of the parts of our digestive system, from mouth to anus, and how what food we eat has a direct impact on our gut flora and its function.

JR: What sparked your interest in the human gut microbiome in the first place?

AMM: My background in medical anthropology led me to investigate the role of diet and lifestyle in preventing chronic disease. As I studied indigenous groups and learned about their relatively low rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, I learned that traditional diets offer protective benefits against these conditions. From there, I soon discovered that there are key differences between our Western gut microbiomes compared to traditional populations. Knowing that diet is the most influential factor on the gut microbiome, I started to explore the connection between nutrition, microbes, and our health. 

What will you be presenting on at our Education Event on June 13?

At our Educational Event on June 13th, we will learn about the billions of beneficial gut microbes and their influence on gut health, metabolism, and immunity, as well as mood and brain function. We will explore how our relationship with the natural environment and our agricultural practices impacts the health of our gut microbiome. Also, I will discuss how the modern Western diet and food system are changing gut microbes and what we can do to feed these beneficial organisms to restore the gut and optimize health.

What are three things that you would suggest people can do to improve their health with respect to their microbiome management? 

(1) Increase intake of prebiotics - these are food components that feed our probiotic bacteria. Prebiotics such as dietary fiber and resistant starches are found in complex carbohydrates. 

(2) Be mindful of antibiotic use and speak to a nutrition professional about whether probiotics should be administered following antibiotic treatment. 

(2) If you experience frequent gas, bloating, or gastrointestinal discomfort, this may be a sign of gut microbiome imbalances and I suggest individual counseling to determine how to increase prebiotics without adding to discomfort. 

 

What about IBS and ulcerative colitis, is this something that people can positively impact with diet? Cure?

Although the gut microbiome is a major topic in health research, there are still many questions about what a healthy microbiome actually looks like. However, we do know that individuals with IBS and IBD may be at greater risk for imbalances in their gut microbiome, a condition known as dysbiosis. Researchers have also identified specific bacteria that play a role in inflammatory bowel diseases - there is hope that targeted probiotic therapy is possible in the near future. (For example, clinical trials show that the probiotic supplement VSL #3 may improve IBD symptoms.) 

 

Will you talk a bit about commensal bacteria?

The bacteria living within the microbiome was long identified as commensal, meaning that it maintained a relationship with the human body in which one organism benefited while the other remained generally unaffected. While some of our gut microbes are still referred to as commensal, recent research reveals that, many of these bacteria actually have a mutualistic relationship with the human body. In other words, we now understand that both our microbes and human cells mutually benefit from one another. Gut microbes are known to impact numerous aspects of the human body including our immune function, metabolism and digestion, mental health, as well as cardiovascular health.  

 

Please talk about how diversity in the microbiome can be best accomplished.

Cross-cultural research shows us that populations with the highest diversity of gut microbes are groups of people who consume a large variety of complex plant foods. For instance, hunter-gatherer groups and traditional farming societies that consume minimally processed foods that are high in dietary fiber and prebiotics tend to have the greatest diversity among their gut microbes. 

Please expound a bit on the important role of fiber in the diet and the diversification of the gut flora.

Some dietary fiber and resistant starch are prebiotics that feed probiotic bacteria. Foods containing these prebiotics are beans and legumes, root vegetables such as jicama and Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, onions, garlic, leeks, and dandelion greens. Interestingly, when you cook potatoes and then cool them, the starch structure changes during the cooling process to form resistant starch that can feed gut bacteria. 

How could it be that candida has a positive role in our microbiome?

Candida albicans is an opportunistic fungus that is likely to be found within most individuals. This fungus can become pathogenic in certain conditions and cause inflammation. Its potential to display pathogenic characteristics is influenced by other surrounding microbes. Researchers continue to investigate what creates the ideal opportunity for Candida infection to occur within the stomach. It is also important to note that healthy populations of probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus inhibit growth of Candida albicans. 

Do you think the gut is our first brain?

The gut-brain axis is bidirectional with gut microbes communicating directly with the brain and nervous system. It is certainly interesting to consider who has the most influence on our health and human experience - our brain or our microbes! 

What do you think about dirt, and sanitation?

There is growing evidence that our exposure to a variety of environmental microbes can positively impact immune function. In fact, lifestyle factors such being raised on a farm, spending time outdoors, and having pets all help immune system development during childhood. 

How can one repair a leaky gut?

Since increased intestinal permeability, or 'leaky gut', is associated with reduced populations of probiotic microbes, it is best to start feeding our beneficial gut microbes so they can do their job in maintaining gut health. Diet is best for improving the diversity of microbes and health of probiotic populations within the colon. When we eat prebiotics, our gut bacteria digest these foods to create substances that keep the gut lining healthy. 

Can we impact the symptoms of autism with improved diet and gut health?

We are unfortunately lacking in clinical research that shows how the gut microbiota may impact symptoms of autism. Still, many individuals with autism also experience gastrointestinal complications and medical nutrition therapy may help reduce these symptoms. Anecdotally, it seems that parents with autistic children can often observe that when these GI symptoms improve, they notice less overall discomfort in their children which can in turn improve their quality of life and lower general irritability related to GI discomfort. 

To learn more from Ana Maria in person, register to attend Cultivate a Healthy Microbiome on June 13, 2019, a NOFA/Mass sponsored event.

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