Could your gut microbiome hold the key to better health?

January 13, 2021

A growing body of research suggests that the trillions of microbes living in your gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome, play an important role in health.

But until now, it’s been difficult to tease out which of the thousands of different microbial species are linked to either positive or negative health outcomes. 

Our latest research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, is the most in-depth study of human nutrition, health, and the microbiome to date, honing in on specific gut microbes linked to diet and health outcomes.

Health and the gut microbiome

What is the gut microbiome?

Professor Tim Spector, one of the world's leading gut microbiome researchers and ZOE co-founder, shares more information about what the gut microbiome is and why you should care about yours.

What does your gut microbiome have to do with your health?

Gut microbes have been linked with many aspects of health and disease, ranging from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), depression, and more. 

They produce a wide range of chemical byproducts, known as metabolites, that can affect our bodies in all kinds of ways. Our microbes also impact our immune system and affect our unique responses to foods by influencing how our blood sugar and blood fat levels change after eating.

There are trillions of microbes from thousands of species living in your gut right now. The exact composition varies widely between each of us, even identical twins. 

Microbiome diversity is also affected by medications and other lifestyle factors, as well as by our age and even by our mother’s microbes as we’re born. Of course, what we eat has a big impact on our gut bugs: after all, our food is their food too.

All of this makes it challenging to understand exactly how our gut microbiome influences our bodies and our health. Until now, most studies so far have been too small to draw meaningful conclusions or connections between gut microbes and health or diet. 

Finding the “good” and “bad” microbes linked to health

The latest findings from our PREDICT study - the world’s largest in-depth investigation of diet, nutrition, and the microbiome - have allowed us to start untangling the interactions between diet, gut microbes, and markers of health.

In total, we found 15 microbes that were strongly associated with having better markers of heart and metabolic health (we call these “good” bugs). People with these microbes had healthier responses to sugar and fat after eating, as well as having lower inflammation and less belly fat.

We also found the opposite: 15 “bad” bugs, which were consistently associated with worse health indicators and unhealthier responses after eating.

Additionally, we discovered that these different microbial species were associated with particular foods, nutrients, and diet patterns

As an example, people with lots of a type of bacteria called Bifidobacterium animalis in their gut were more sensitive to insulin, which indicates better blood sugar control. Another bug, Prevotella copri, was associated with having healthier blood sugar levels after eating.

This is significant because good blood sugar and insulin control help to avoid dramatic peaks and crashes, which can leave you feeling tired and hungry on a day to day basis and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in the longer term. 

In contrast, having Ruminococcus gnavus bacteria was found in people with less healthy blood fat responses after meals, which are linked to increased dietary inflammation.

Repeated over months and years, this may lead to an increased risk of heart disease and other metabolic conditions.

Is there a “microbiome diet” for health?

This is the first time a research study has brought all these aspects of nutrition, diet, and health together at this scale, but the good news is that this isn’t just a niche scientific publication: our findings have real-world benefits for everyone.

The fact that we each have a unique gut microbiome that can be changed through diet gives us a potential way to improve metabolism and health. 

Some universal principles can help support a healthy gut microbiome, such as eating more plants - fiber does wonders for your gut bugs! However, teasing out the interactions between specific microbes and health gives us new insights into how to do this on a personalized level.

While there are several diets around that claim to “boost your microbiome” and improve your health, your collection of gut microbes is unique to you. So there is no “one-size-fits-all” diet that will work for everyone.

To really understand how to improve your health from the inside out and what you should eat to help keep your microbiome happy and healthy, you need to know which mix of microbes are living in your gut right now. 

So, do you have the "good" bugs? ZOE uses the most cutting-edge science available to help you understand your unique responses to food. With our at-home test kit you can discover which of these 15 “good” and 15 “bad” bugs live in your gut, understand your blood sugar and fat responses, and get personalized food advice based on your unique biology.

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