Can A Healthy Gut Help You Live Longer?

Humans have a complex relationship with bacteria Credit: Nishant Choksi

Our gut and the microbiome play a crucial role in our health, but could better understanding of that role help us avoid disease and live longer?

The microbiome weighs 2-3 pounds and contains 10 times more cells than our own, but we've neglected our microbial tenants for a long time. These little denizens help us break down food, provide key nutrients and even play a role in inflammation and the integrity of our intestinal tract. It's no surprise then that fermented foods and probiotics are gaining popularity as we become more aware of how important our gut is. Recent evidence even links poor digestive health to chronic inflammation and Parkinson's disease.

New research suggests that both gut integrity, and the amount and type of bacteria that reside within it, can actually predict an individual's health. They may even quicken or slow the pace of aging.  

When scientists studied a population of fruit flies, they discovered that 5-6 days before death these flies developed a 'leaky' gut; allowing harmful substances to seep into their body. Bacterial changes seemed to occur beforehand - hinting that the bacteria were driving the decline. When these flies were given antibiotics to reduce their bacterial population, they experienced a significant boost in lifespan. When some were further engineered to be germ-free, they also lived longer and their intestines remained more intact.

How could this be?

Persistent leaking through an unhealthy gut allows lots of nasty things to pass through. Your immune system desperately tries to protect you, but this constant activation leads to inflammation. Chronic inflammation. Your gut is about 20 feet long and has a huge surface area, so if this barrier ever breaks down, you're in trouble. Just like when you cut your skin, it leaves you vulnerable to infection. If the gut fails to appropriately seal you get chronic inflammation - which causes widespread damage throughout the body. 

So we need a healthy gut. How do we get that?

The Human Microbiome Project is one project attempting to find out more

There's a problem. We don't really know what a 'healthy microbiome' looks like yet. Humans have a wide variety of diets and very different microbiomes, but we haven't isolated what each type is actually doing. We need to know more to determine which support or harm us in the long run, and whether any damage our gut in a similar way. Once we know more we can develop treatments to correct imbalances. 

Before we get carried away, this research was also conducted on flies. Antibiotics are incredibly useful, but clearly bacteria do a bunch of positive things too, so removing them entirely isn't advisable. There are still a lot of questions to tackle like what happens to the average gut with age? What specific bacteria are more prevalent? What causes the lining to breakdown? Do healthy, long lived people have specific bacterial signatures?

How does your microbiome compare?

In the study the microbiome was shown to be an effective aging biomarker, so its possible that in the future a microbiome swab could provide a good picture of your biological age. We all age differently and have different health concerns, but projects like the American Gut, British Gut and Ubiome allow you to send in samples and see exactly what species you're harboring. You can also compare your data to others, looking at categories like diet, gender and age. As we learn more about the intricacies of microbiome and whether it contributes to the aging process, these could also provide a good picture of your overall health. 

 

Read more at Medicalxpress