Not Just a Fad: The intersection of 3 factors explains why the current focus on Gut Health is worth paying attention to
As a skeptical person, I completely understand that many people’s ‘gut’ reaction to all the news on gut health is to see it as another fad or trend. And like many overblown topics based on some tidbit of truth, people are concluding that the hype outweighs the science. While I can’t defend all of the gut health comments you’ll find out there, I do sincerely believe that we are witnessing a revolution in our understanding of health. This fundamental digestive health knowledge has resulted from the collision of key three factors.
First, we need to recognize that the application of one of the greatest medical discoveries in the past hundred years has had unforeseen and unintended consequences. Since the initial applications in the first part of the 20th century, oral antibiotics have saved the lives of millions of people. However, the use of these systemically active compounds destroys both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, and the wide-spread use of these medications to treat mild infections during the later part of the 20th century has had negative effects on the gut microbiome of several generations of people.
A second gut microbiome-compromising event occurred during the 20th century: The industrialization of the food industry. The processing of food for convenient cooking, long-term storage, and for changing preferences for the taste and texture have altered our food, creating the tableau of food choices we now recognize as the Western Diet. While this diet is rightfully criticized for having high levels of fat, sugar, and salt, fewer people appreciate that it also lacks substantial levels of prebiotic fermentable fiber. In other words, the Western Diet starves the gut microbiome. Like antibiotic usage, the Western Diet also has had effects over several generations.
Together, the combination of antibiotic usage and the adoption of the Western Diet has had significant negative consequences for our gut microbiome. But these effects have gone unseen until recently, when novel methods in genetic sequencing allowed researchers to better understand the diverse ecosystem of microbes living within us. Previously, microbiologists had to try to culture bacterial strains, including many which would simply not survive outside of their host’s anatomy, before being able to study those bacteria. Now, genetic sequencing can tell us a great deal about the microbes in the gut without ever having to study them under a microscope.
Genetic sequencing analysis methods have linked alterations in the gut microbiome to many of the modern diseases in the developed world. Without these technological advancements, we likely would have never been able to link alterations in the gut microbiome to these health challenges. On the other hand, had we not widely used antibiotics or adopted the Western Diet, we might have never stressed our microbiome in such a way as to highlight how important it is important to our overall health.
So when considering why gut health is such a hot topic right now, recognize that the serendipitous collision of antibiotic usage, poor diet, and revolutionary sequencing capabilities have only recently created the perfect storm from which a new field of research – Microbiology of the Human Gut – has emerged.