Health & fitness

Feeding microbes for health

Print edition : March 30, 2018

A high-fibre diet.

Studies in the past have shown that eating high-fibre diets is beneficial especially for those who suffer from diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Now a team of researchers from China has not only figured out why this is so but has gone a step further to identify a bunch of tummy microbes that could extend a helping hand in managing chronic diseases like diabetes better.

Foods that are extremely rich in fibre are traditionally derived from plants. Highly processed foods, on other hand, contain little or no fibre. It is said that regular consumption of processed food results in the loss of many beneficial microbes.

Scientists from several Chinese institutions, led by Liping Zhao, a microbiologist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, found that these gut bacteria metabolise hard-to-digest carbohydrates to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which provide energy to colon cells, mitigate inflammation and help regulate hunger.

The study, which appeared in the journal Science on March 8, gives an important insight into what had perplexed many medical scientists for a while. Even though many past clinical trials demonstrated that having a high-fibre diet could improve disease outcomes of diabetes, responses to this treatment remained highly variable.

This led to a realisation that it is critical to understand how the gut microbiome responds to dietary changes in order to improve the efficacy of dietary interventions. It also prompted Zhao and his colleagues from half a dozen Chinese institutions to suggest that a select band of SCFA-producing bacteria is responsible for the positive impact of a high-fibre diet on patients with diabetes.

Their experiments involving two patient cohorts found that the group under a high-fibre diet experienced a significant reduction in blood sugar levels and body weight as compared to the control group under standard care. The scientists subsequently sequenced microbial genes in the patients’ faecal samples, and this helped them identify as many as 15 SCFA-producing strains that were specifically promoted by dietary fibres.

Though belonging to different phyla, these bacteria acted as a guild to augment SCFA production, consequently supporting gut health by outcompeting microbes that release compounds hindering effective metabolism.

The scientists hoped that promoting this exclusive microbial group through personalised nutrition may serve as a novel approach for maintaining the beneficial relationship between the body and its microbiome during metabolic disorders like diabetes.

T.V. Jayan

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