Returning from the Harvest (Manuring)

Feeding Your Microbiome Dietary Pixie Dust

According to Anahad O’Connor in the Washington Post, your microbiome can do amazing things for you. “These vast communities of microbes are the gateway to your health and well-being – and one of the simplest and most powerful ways to shape and nurture them is through your diet.” Because research sez so. So maybe feeding your microbiome with just the right diet explains why food is medicine.

Magic That’s Good for What Ails You

The range of potential benefits crammed into this health reporting is really quite remarkable. It would make a Vim-Herb salesman proud:

“Studies show that our gut microbes transform the foods we eat into thousands of enzymes, hormones, vitamins and other metabolites that influence everything from your mental health and immune system to your likelihood of gaining weight and developing chronic diseases.

“Gut bacteria can even affect your mental state by producing mood-altering neurotransmitters like dopamine, which regulates pleasure, learning and motivation, and serotonin, which plays a role in happiness, appetite and sexual desire. Some recent studies suggest that the composition of your gut microbiome can even play a role in how well you sleep.”

Yes indeed, these gut bugs sound positively magical.

But What Does the Science Really Say?

We hate to be a party pooper, but the science to back up these amazing claims really isn’t here yet.

To be clear, this is a promising field of research. Those trillions of little buggers in your gut likely do influence your health. And no doubt, they do interact with the food you eat. However, what O’Connor is suggesting in his reporting is that the right diet for the bugs in your gut is therapeutic. And that suggestion stretches the current evidence too far. In a recent review, Emily Leeming and colleagues lay out the promise and the challenges for therapeutic diets to enhance health through the microbiome. They make it quite clear:

“Clinical evidence with health outcomes is required before therapeutic dietary strategies for microbial amelioration can be made.”

In short, this may be a great concept, but the evidence needs to catch up.

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

Dietitian Leah McGrath advises us to take all this sensationalism with a grain of salt:

“The microbiome and gut health are indeed a hot topic. Right now it seems safest to conclude that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t yet know. Nonetheless, this won’t stop people from making sweeping dietary recommendations, selling probiotics and poo-testing, or making health claims.”

Embedded in O’Connor’s reporting is some perfectly sound dietary advice. “Eating a wide variety of fiber-rich plants and nutrient-dense foods” is certainly good for you. Is it therapeutic through and for your microbiome? That remains to be seen.

Can we please just follow this interesting science without turning it into woo-woo wellness?

Click here for O’Connor’s reporting in the Post and here, here, here, and here for more on the science of therapeutic approaches to the microbiome.

Returning from the Harvest (Manuring), painting by Paul Gauguin / WikiArt

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September 21, 2022