BY CLARE HOWARD
Two medical researchers who arrived at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria in August dream of fighting disease and boosting immunity by restoring balance to the gut microbiome.
Long-held assumptions about the human gut thought it was composed of more microbial cells than human cells by a ratio of 10-to-one, but recent research indicates that ratio may be closer to one-to-one. Rather than counting calories, carbs or fat grams, current research is pointing to a healthy, balanced community of bacteria, fungi and viruses in the human gut as a key to health and a strong immune system.
A healthy, diverse gut microbiome is influenced by diet, exercise, sleep and stress, the researchers said.
Dr. Peter Gyarmati, Ph.D., and his wife Dr. Yajing Song, M.D. and Ph.D., understand microbes in the gut not only fight disease but maintain health, regulate weight, nutrition, digestion, obesity and mood disorders.
The couple came to Peoria from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, arriving in the United States in late summer. Dr. Marcelo Bento Soares and his colleagues at the medical school recruited them with a goal of establishing research collaborations.
“One very important partnership would be with the oncology group at Children’s Hospital,” said Soares, senior associate dean for research and head of the department of cancer biology and pharmacology at the medical school.
“Over the last several years, we have learned the composition of the gut microbiome is relevant to physical and mental health, inflammation, coronary disease, emotional wellness. Nutrition is of great relevance to the composition of the gut microbiome.
“For our department studying cancer, this was an area not represented, and it needed to be. It is very clear how the composition of the gut influences colon cancer but not only colon cancer.”
He said the department will be able to reach out and conduct more interdisciplinary research collaborations.
Dr. Amy Christison, assistant program director of the pediatric residency program at the medical school, is already initiating a collaborative research project tied with her work on childhood obesity.
“This is a really exciting area of research,” she said, noting that preliminary studies have indicated childhood obesity is linked to dysbiosis or an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. One way she helps families visualize the damage this imbalance creates is by explaining a 100-calorie brownie can become a 200-calorie brownie for patients who don’t properly digest food because of dysbiosis.
“Hormones respond to this imbalance by storing more calories as fat,” she said.
In addition to obesity, research shows a link with cardiac disease, diabetes and hypertension, Christison said. Additionally, some studies have linked antibiotic use in children under 1 year old with dysbiosis and obesity later in life.
Gyarmati and Song just recently completed setting up their laboratory to study the trillions of tiny microbial cells that inhabit the human intestine. These symbiotic microbes function as a system.
“Our microbiome community is like a distinct organ,” Gyarmati said.
Antibiotics, a foundation of western medicine, kill both good and bad bacteria. Antibiotics can alter the gut microbiome for periods lasting from weeks to years. Overuse can lead to antibiotic resistant infections.
While the European Union banned routine use of antibiotics in meat production in 2006, the practice continues in the United States.
Christison said she did not think it is unreasonable to recommend pregnant women avoid industrial meat. However, the higher cost of organic meat is often cited as a deterrent, to which Christison counters that if less meat is consumed, the higher price becomes less prohibitive.
Some medical researchers are looking at the idea of banking stool before treatment with antibiotics the same way blood can be banked before a major surgery. Stool transplants are being researched as a treatment for clostridium difficile colitis or C. diff, a potentially deadly form of diarrhea that is highly contagious. Local hospitals are implementing aggressive new measures to control transmission rates of C. diff (see Community Word, November 2016).
Insuring a healthy gut microbiome is linked with consuming a wide variety of vegetables, including fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut.
“Changes in the microbiome can affect disease outcomes,” Gyarmati said, noting that a strong immune system is related to the microbiome.
Many diseases including leukemia, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes are influenced by the gut microbiome. An impaired gut microbiome can influence everything from allergies, inflammation and metabolic diseases to depression and anxiety,
These tiny microbial cells have the power to turn genes on and off, burn food more efficiently, enhance thinking and maintain balance.
Song said the western diet rich in meat, dairy and processed food is highly acidic. African and Asian diets that are plant-based are alkaline.
“Our bodies don’t need so much meat. Too much meat can be harmful,” Song said.
“Our research looks at how the whole system operates versus looking at one treatment. Too much acid is not good for health.”
Chemotherapy destroys rapidly dividing cells like cancer cells and those lining the gut and can affect how the body fights infection, Gyarmati said.
Song said her mother used a treatment of antibiotics and later had to rebuild her microbiome.
“In Chinese medicine, treatment focuses on natural balance,” she said, looking at systems versus distinct organs, whereas Western medicine has a long history of treating illness not with natural balance but with antibiotics and other medicine.
In his book, “The Microbiome Diet,” Raphael Kellman, M.D., suggests not counting calories but avoiding foods that harm the microbiome and eating foods that support it. Eliminate: sugar, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, transfats and hydrogenated fats, meats raised inorganically, GMOs, artificial color, preservatives and inflammatory foods. Add: asparagus, carrots, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, leeks, okra, onions, radishes, tomatoes, fermented vegetables and spices including turmeric and cinnamon. Once balance in the microbiome is restored, diet can include occasional amounts of eliminated foods.