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“American Gut” - One of the Most Important Health Projects of the 21st Century

Gut Flora

Story at-a-glance -

  • What might be one of the most important natural health projects of the 21st century—known as The American Gut Project—is about to launch. The project seeks to identify the parameters for the ideal gut flora, and how diet and other lifestyle factors affect it
  • In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that the microbes in your gut play a much more vital role in your health than previously conceived. In fact, probiotics, along with a host of other gut microorganisms, are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to "a newly recognized organ"
  • Gut microbes have been found to influence a number of diseases, obesity, mental health and behavior, and even gene expression
  • Fermented foods, such as fermented vegetables, are the ideal way to optimize your gut flora. Avoiding antibiotics and meats from animals fed antibiotics; processed foods; chlorinated and fluoridated water; antibacterial soap and agricultural chemicals is also important, as all of these promote the growth of pathogenic bacteria

By Dr. Mercola

In association with the Human Food Project1, University of Colorado researchers and other scientists and collaborators around the world2 are launching what I believe might be one of the most important natural health projects of this century.

The project, known as "American Gut3" will allow participants to learn more about their guts — which microbes inhabit your intestines, and how they're affecting your health. (A related project, uBiome, will enroll people from anywhere in the world.)

I'm very excited about this, and encourage you to join in what I think is a truly worthwhile science project.

Because let there be no mistake about it, the makeup of bacteria residing in your gut has a phenomenal impact on your health — both physical and mental. Optimizing your gut flora is, quite simply, one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and mental state.

Jeff Leach, a graduate student at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a co-founder of the American Gut Project recently told Prevention Magazine4:

"We hope to enter the national conversation about what you should eat. Our question is this: From the perspective of your microbiome, which is now linked to most acute and chronic diseases, what diet should you follow?"

Join the American Gut Project!

American Gut builds on previous projects, including the Human Microbiome Project5, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The aim of the Microbiome Project was to "characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health."

American Gut will go a step further by allowing the public to participate, and all the gathered information will be made public (except the personal information of the participants of course). It's an extremely ambitious project seeking to identify the parameters for the ideal gut flora, and how diet affects it.

The American Gut Project's website explains how it will work:

"American Gut is a project built on open-source, open-access principles. Our data are for the good of understanding and will be shared both with participants and with other scientists. Our experience has been that our best ideas and work come when we involve people in as many steps of our work as possible...

The more we can understand the complex microbial ecosystems on which we depend, the more everyone will benefit... Human diets vary to the extreme, from complete herbivory (vegans) to something close to pure carnivory. By reaching out to people with all types of diets, whether voluntary due to personal beliefs or to enhance athletic performance, or required by conditions such as celiac disease, we can reach a much broader range of eaters and potentially a much broader range of microbiomes -- but American Gut needs all comers.

We will also be able to cross-reference your data with those living traditional lifestyles such as hunter-gatherers and farmers across the globe (see below), from Peru to Namibia.

However, to do this, good diet information (and other possible influences from smoking to antibiotics) is critical, and so we'll ask you to fill in detailed information about these factors in the questionnaire with your kit. Your diet and other health information are essential to the project, so please plan on bringing it along! So how does your diet and lifestyle shape your gut microbiome? And how does it compare to folks following different diets - and does it even matter? Most likely yes. Only one way to find out."

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How Joining the American Gut Project Can Benefit You

Signing up as a participant in the American Gut project (by making a donation) will not only benefit science — and in this case the science of diet and natural health — you will also get valuable information about the state of your own gut. Prevention Magazine even added the American Gut Project to its "Top 10 Gifts for the Foodie" on your Christmas list6.

Every bit of evidence indicates that this may be one of the best health tests you can take.I am personally participating in this project and very excited to see what consuming several ounces of fermented vegetables nearly every day has done to my bowel flora.

What's truly exciting about this project is the fact that it will allow us to really evaluate and compare the effects of a very diverse conglomeration of lifestyles. Scientific studies almost always focus on carefully chosen groups of people who are studied for a specific purpose, typically to confirm or debunk a hypothesis. This project on the other hand will crack the lid open on the effects on gut flora of a myriad of lifestyle choices, by people of all ethnicities and ages. According to Professor Rob Knight of CU-Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute7:

"A key aspect of the project is to understand how diet and lifestyle, whether by choice -- like athletes or vegetarians -- or by necessity, including those suffering from particular autoimmune diseases or who have food allergies, affect peoples' microbial makeup."

The project is crowdfunded, meaning it's funded by volunteer donations. In return, you get certain "Perks," which include:

  • A list of the dominant microbes in your gut
  • Visualizations showing how you compare to the general population
  • Charts showing the dominant kinds of microbes along with descriptions of what they are most associated with
  • If your donation covers multiple sample kits, you may be able to see how your microbes change over time (if all the samples are from you), or how your microbes compare to those in your family members, for example

Here's a summary of how many sampling kits you receive with your donation (Please understand that we are only endorsing this project and the entire cost below goes directly to the Project):

  • $99 — One kit, which can be used for either a stool, skin or oral sample
  • $180 — Receive two kits, which can be used by yourself, either by sending in two different types of samples (stool and oral sample, for example), or by sending them in at different times to see how your microbes change over time. Or the kits can be used to send in one type of sample from two different people
  • $260 — Receive three kits
  • $320 — Receive four kits
  • For donations of $500 and over, please see the American Gut Project IndieGoGo website

The kits contain pre-labeled test tubes and instructions for how to properly collect your samples. Each sample must be mailed to the University of Colorado within 48 hours of collection. (You will be responsible for the postage: $1.95 per sample.) Kits will be mailed out starting in January, 2013.

How Your Gut Microbes Can Affect Your Health

In recent years, it's become increasingly clear that the microbes in your gut play a much more vital role in your health than previously conceived. In fact, probiotics, along with a host of other gut microorganisms, are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to "a newly recognized organ."  Some interesting research to date includes:

  1. Behavior: A study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility8 found mice that lack gut bacteria were found to behave differently from normal mice, engaging in what would be referred to as "high-risk behavior." This altered behavior was accompanied by neurochemical changes in the mouse brain. Researchers stated:
  2. "Bacteria colonize the gut in the days following birth, during a sensitive period of brain development, and apparently influence behavior by inducing changes in the expression of certain genes."

  3. Gene Expression: Researchers have also discovered that the absence or presence of gut microorganisms during infancy permanently alters gene expression. Through gene profiling, they were able to discern that absence of gut bacteria altered genes and signaling pathways involved in learning, memory, and motor control. This suggests that gut bacteria are closely tied to early brain development and subsequent behavior. These behavioral changes could be reversed as long as the mice were exposed to normal microorganisms early in life. But once the germ-free mice had reached adulthood, colonizing them with bacteria did not influence their behavior.
  4. In a similar way, probiotics have also been found to influence the activity of hundreds of your genes, helping them to express in a positive, disease-fighting manner.

  5. Diabetes: Bacterial populations in the gut of diabetics9 differ from non-diabetics, according to a study from Denmark. In particular, diabetics had fewer Firmicutes and more plentiful amounts of Bacteroidetes and Proteobacteria, compared to non-diabetics. The study also found a positive correlation for the ratios of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes and reduced glucose tolerance. The researchers concluded:
  6. "The results of this study indicate that type 2 diabetes in humans is associated with compositional changes in intestinal microbiota."

  7. Autism: Establishment of normal gut flora in the first 20 days or so of life plays a crucial role in appropriate maturation of your baby's immune system. Hence, babies who develop abnormal gut flora are left with compromised immune systems and are particularly at risk for developing such disorders as ADHD, learning disabilities and autism, particularly if they are vaccinated before restoring balance to their gut flora.
  8. To get a solid understanding of just how this connection works, I highly recommend reviewing the information shared by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride in this previous interview.

    Download Interview Transcript

  9. Obesity: The make-up of gut bacteria tends to differ in lean vs. obese people. This is one of the strongest areas of probiotic research to date, and you can read about a handful of such studies here. The bottom line is that restoring your gut flora should be an important consideration if you're struggling to lose weight, and doing this is relatively straightforward, as I'll describe below.

How to Optimize Your Gut Flora

An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is also located in your gut, so reseeding your gut with healthy bacteria is important for the prevention of virtually ALL disease, from colds to cancer. In light of this, here are my recommendations for optimizing your gut bacteria.

  • Fermented foods are the best route to optimal digestive health, as long as you eat the traditionally made, unpasteurized versions. Healthy choices include lassi (an Indian yoghurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner), fermented grass fed organic milk such as kefir, various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots, and natto (fermented soy).
  • Some of the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods are also excellent chelators of heavy metals and pesticides, which will also have a beneficial health effect by reducing your toxic load.

    Fermented vegetables, which are one of my new passions, are an excellent way to supply beneficial bacteria back into our gut. And, unlike some other fermented foods, they tend to be palatable, if not downright delicious, to most people. As an added bonus, they can also a great source of vitamin K2 if you ferment your own using the proper starter culture. We recently had samples of high-quality fermented organic vegetables made with our specific starter culture tested, and a typical serving (about two to three ounces) contained not only 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, but it also had 500 mcg of vitamin K2, which we now know is a vital co-nutrient to both vitamin D and calcium.

    Most high quality probiotics supplements will only supply you with a fraction of the beneficial bacteria found in such homemade fermented veggies, so it's your most economical route to optimal gut health as well.

  • Probiotic supplement. Although I'm not a major proponent of taking many supplements (as I believe the majority of your nutrients need to come from food), probiotics is an exception if you don't eat fermented foods on a regular basis.

In addition to knowing what to add to your diet and lifestyle, it's equally important to know what to avoid, and these include:

Antibiotics, unless absolutely necessary (and when you do, make sure to reseed your gut with fermented foods and/or a probiotics supplement) Conventionally-raised meats and other animal products, as CAFO animals are routinely fed low-dose antibiotics, plus genetically engineered grains, which have also been implicated in the destruction of gut flora Processed foods (as the excessive sugars, along with otherwise "dead" nutrients, feed pathogenic bacteria)
Chlorinated and/or fluoridated water Antibacterial soap Agricultural chemicals