Special edition: Microbiome metrics & advances

Negotiating the balance: The host-microbiota relationship

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Preserving the delicate balance between the gut microbiota and the host is a life long task in order to maintain good health. © iStock.com
Preserving the delicate balance between the gut microbiota and the host is a life long task in order to maintain good health. © iStock.com
Insights into the gut microbiome in recent years have greatly accelerated our understanding of the role the gastrointestinal tract has in human health, well-being and disease outcomes.

Research has shown the sheer diversity of the gut’s microflora. For every human cell, there are ten bacterial cells. Human DNA is dwarfed by microbial DNA by 100 to one.

The gut’s microbiome has a crucial role to play in human physiology with influence on immune system development, and cardiovascular disease. Its role in weight management, insulin production and metabolism has led scientists to believe its role in diabetes and other metabolic diseases has been underestimated.

The microbiome and obesity

Science is pointing towards the gut flora as the hidden factor in the obesity epidemic seen over the past twenty years.

Recent experiments​ that involved transplanting gut flora from obese human subjects into mice, which resulted in the mice gaining weight, established a cause-and-effect

obesity
Processed food, high in fat and sugar, is upsetting the gut microbes’ ability to ferment indigestible nutrients, produce micronutrients and reduce harmful toxins. (© iStock.com)

relationship between gut microbes and the prevention of obesity.

In addition, studies in humans and animals show the disruption a Western diet has on gut bacteria is growing. It has become apparent that processed food, high in fat and sugar is upsetting the gut microbes’ ability to ferment indigestible nutrients, produce micronutrients and reduce harmful toxins.

“We concluded that if you have a diverse gut microbiota, i.e. many different species, you can better tolerate being over-weight,”​ said Dr Jens Nielsen, head of the research team that sought to quantify diet-induced metabolic changes of the human gut microbiome.

“If you have a compressed gut microbiota you are at elevated risk for developing disease if you are over-weight, and you benefit more from weight loss.”

Gut microbiome in early life

Baby food
"“Although it is not solely determined by what you are born with, but early development seems to be very important for proper child growth,” (© iStock.com)

One of the most interesting areas in the recent surge of research on gut flora is its influence on weight and health from an early age. Like babies themselves, the infant’s intestinal microbiomes are immature and grow over time into communities similar to those of adults.

Although it is not solely determined by what you are born with, early development seems to be very important for proper child growth,” ​said Nielsen.

“This is determined by how the infants are fed (breast feeding seem to give a better development of the gut microbiota). The gut microbiota can change later in life, e.g. long term diet.”

This seemed to be the case in a study​that showed babies had a different composition of gut bacteria at six weeks old when they were fed only breast milk compared to those fed breast milk and formula and those fed only formula.

A study​ by scientists in Sweden even found a link between the development of a child's gut microbiome and the way he or she is delivered. By analysing faecal samples of 98 Swedish infants during their first year of life, those born via C-section had gut bacteria significantly different to their mothers compared to those delivered vaginally.

The relationship between gut microbiota and the host is key to future health and well-being of the host. This bond is formed almost from birth directing the infant’s intestinal and immune development. How strong the bond becomes appears to be a mixture of diet and other environmental factors.

Scientists are in agreement about one thing: from birth until old age, our gut bacteria are constantly evolving. As life expectancy continues to increase, making informed decisions on what to eat, and activities to participate in has become essential in preserving the delicate balance between the gut microbiota and the host.

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