Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Paleo and your microbiome

My guess is that most of you reading this blog realize how dramatically your life can change by switching to a Paleo Diet.  Having worked in the fitness industry for 17 years I have not seen anything quite like it.  Not only do people tend to lose a boatload of weight doing the diet, but many of the minor health maladies/aches and pains they have attributed to just getting old tend to fade away as well.  What most people fail to realize is that these 2 improvements are not separate issues.  They are also not mechanical in nature, you don't ache less because you have less weight to lug around.  The reason for both are tied to the inner ecosystem known as your gut microbiome.

This past year has been a gigantic leap forward in human health.  Epigenetics is picking up steam and being realized as one of the most important discoveries in human health ever while potentially revolutionizing the way we look at evolution.  However, if this past year has had an MVP for health research, it is the gut microbiome hands down.  From autism to autoimmunity to obesity to insulin resistance, changes in the gut seem to be dramatically affecting the way the human organism works.  Whether we are talking about the gut environment itself or the bacterial species that inhabit it, having a healthy gut is crucial to human health.  In fact, the gut is where most of your immune system lies and those bacterial species ferment the food you eat in order to provide your body with nutrients.  So, what is the gut microbiome?

The gut microbiome refers to the make up of the bacteria in your gut.  What most people don't realize is that you are more bacteria than human, about 10 times more bacteria than human.  If you look at the number of genes a human has in relation to the number of genes contained in the bacteria that inhabit one, the microbiome contains 100x more.  Given that the genes are what actually accomplish biological functions, the microbiome is pretty important stuff.

As we find out more about the way our bodies work, the way we approach certain things changes.  New research as well as research that has been around for decades indicates that weight gain/loss isn't solely regulated by calories in vs calories out, also known as energy balance.  For one, the magnitude of both calories in and calories out is highly variable based on what you eat, what you do, your genetic make up and you microbiome.  Another issue is that in the absence of Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) induced sepsis, animals fed high fat or high calories diets don't tend to gain weight.  Ironically enough, what you eat seems to be the most important factor here, both in terms of maintaining the integrity of the intestinal barrier as well as providing the bacterial diversity that is necessary for optimal health.  In my opinion, the gut microbiome will help explain a lot of the things we don't currently understand in human health.  Chief among them is weight loss.

When someone comes to me because they are having trouble losing weight on a Paleo diet, the first thing I look for is nutrients that may be compromising the gut lining either directly by causing inflammation or indirectly by changing the gut microbiome.  Obviously I need to find out if this person is work week Paleo or 7 days a week Paleo.  The problem with being work week Paleo is that every Friday after 5 through Sunday night they undo most of the healing they had done to their gut over the course of the previous 4.5 days.  It would basically be like popping the stitches on a wound every 5 days, certainly not a winning strategy for wound treatment.

The next step is to look at the composition of their diet, specifically what veggies they are eating.  One group of people that I red flag are those people who are Atkins circa 2002 Paleo.  These people eat nothing but meat and often neglect both bone broth and organ meats, both necessary components of doing it that way.  This is a problem because high fat diets tend to cause significant amounts of gut inflammation by changing the gut microbiome, something we are trying to avoid.  However, it appears that it is not the high fat diet per se, but an absence of plant matter in the diet.  Here is a rundown of that topic...

Human Food Project: An eater's guide to a healthy microbiome

Before we get in to how this may happen we should go over how bacteria spread in an environment such as your gut.  If I have 2 petri dishes full of the same ratio of a diverse array of bacteria and introduce different fuel sources in to each they will quickly become drastically different from one another.  This is because the bacterial species that consume the fuel source I introduce will multiply while the others will die off and be replaced with bacteria that can use that fuel.  So, if I put a plant in one and meat in the other, we would eventually have completely different bacterial communities.  Your gut operates in the same way.  When you eat a purely meat diet, some of the beneficial bacteria that ferments plant material and heals your gut lining reduce in numbers, making it difficult to heal an already damaged gut.  In addition, eating a diet devoid of plant material slows down the transit time of what you are consuming, allowing it to fester in your intestines long enough to cause some serious inflammation.  The prescription...More plants in the diet.

Now that I have gone through all of that, I would like to announce that my Synergy Wellness Paleo Challenge Group will be participating in a challenge within the challenge.  That's right, I plan on making next week Microbiome Diversity week with the ultimate goal of eating a minimum of 40 different vegetables during the week.  If you are interested in getting involved, let me know.  You don't have to do the challenge to be in the group, most people just use it as a way to get recipes and tricks to help them follow the diet.