Bacteria in gut key to good health, study shows


ARE YOU a “tea and toaster”, a person who habitually makes a meal out of these two items or some other restricted combination of foods? If so, you probably have an unhappy gut.

The notion that you are what you eat has taken on a whole new meaning based on research coming out of University College Cork and Teagasc. What you eat has a direct influence on what bacteria see fit to populate your gut, and the community of bacteria that live there in turn have a direct influence on your health.

Details of how this works are published this morning in the journal Nature and were released yesterday at the ongoing EuroScience Open Forum at the Convention Centre Dublin.

This community or the “gut microbiota” is an essential part of life, said Dr Paul O’Toole of UCC. “The gut biota is very important for human health. You need to think of the gut biota as an extra organ of the body.”

Clearly it must be important given there are about 10 times more bacterial cells in your gut than human cells in your entire body.

This amounts to kilos of bacteria working away happily in the gut, helping to break down food and deliver nutrients to the body.

Dr O’Toole and his colleagues, including Prof Fergus Shanahan and Dr Ian Jeffery, both of UCC, and Prof Paul Ross of Teagasc, have been exploring this community, which is most readily assessed from faecal samples.

It provides a wealth of information and can now be used to assess issues such as health, the nature of a person’s diet and whether an older person lived in the community or in long-term care.

The Eldermet project, headed by Dr O’Toole, seeks to understand the links between a person’s microbiota and general health status.

This latest study looked at the microbiota of 178 elderly people with an average age of 78.

A startling amount of information began to emerge about links between diet, level of frailty and residential status.

The research team showed that the mix of gut bacteria was linked to health status with higher levels of variety associated with better general health and lower levels of frailty.

It also indicates that having a poor mix of bacteria in the gut had long-term implications for health.

“This suggests we may be able to improve the health of older people by modifying the microbiota,” Dr O’Toole said.

There was a mix of subjects, some in long-term care facilities and some in the community. The team could predict on the basis of the microbiota present to which group the subject belonged.

There was usually a more varied bacterial mix in those living in the community. Lower variety was also correlated to frailty and poorer health, the researchers said. The lack of variety was linked in turn to a lack of variety in the diet, a condition seen as typical in the “tea and toasters”, Prof Shanahan said.

Many people ate a repetitive diet for physical or habitual reasons. But this was not enough to keep the gut bacteria happy, he said. “They [bacteria] are not parasites, but we must feed them as well. “We will all be elderly and we want to live well when elderly,” he said.