We all have trillions of bacteria, yeasts and fungi in our bodies, particularly in our intestines. The mix of these microbes makes up our microbiome. New research shows that this microbiome may have more to do with your weight than what you eat. Farmers around the world have long known that feeding antibiotics to chicken and cows fattens them up. Human trials have shown the same thing and scientists now have the research to find out why. Antibiotics, as well as certain dietary choices, change the bacterial lining of the intestines. Those changes allow more calories to be extracted from food. They also increase cravings and appetite by changing hormones. This research gives hope to those who wish to bolster their ability to lose weight. You can change your intestinal microbiome and therefore help your body lose weight.
We now know that our intestinal microbiome affects many important processes, such as digestion, destruction of parasites, mood and brain function, immune system regulation, and prevention of autoimmune diseases. Naturopathic physicians have been working for decades to educate patients about the importance of the microbiome and now scientists around the world are using new technology to understand the microbiome and learn how to foster and protect it.
Why is it that some people seem to put on weight while others lose weight easily? The answer may be that those who lack good bacteria in the intestines seem to extract more calories from food. Recent research shows that thin mice who receive a microbiome transfer from obese mice, gain weight, despite being on a calorie controlled diet. It appears that the microbiome of the obese mice has an increased capacity to harvest energy from the diet.
Another factor in weight gain is the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin. A healthy microbiome regulates appetite by reducing this hormone. But using antibiotics that alter the microbiome increases ghrelin and is associated with weight gain.
So how do we encourage the growth of an abundant and diverse microbiome? We need to begin at birth. Babies in the womb are “sterile”. The birth canal provides the baby’s first inoculation with the bacteria he or she will need to digest breast milk. Babies born by c-section, who miss out on that bacteria, may be more prone to weight problems as they age. C-sections are a welcome lifesaver at times but I recommend all my c-section babies be given appropriate probiotic supplements (intestinal microbiome powder) as soon as possible after birth.
Humans given antibiotics are more prone to weight gain, just like chickens. Of course antibiotics are another modern medical necessity in some cases. The benefit of antibiotics is generally perceived to be much greater than it actually is for common infections. There are natural medicines that can strengthen the immune system and fight infection without damaging the microbiome. So try to avoid antibiotics and take probiotics if you can’t avoid them.
The foods we eat also cause our microbiome to adapt and change. High refined sugar diets promote the growth of bacteria that influence ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone. Healthier diets help the healthier bacterial to grow. Cats fed higher carbohydrate diets had kittens which ate more and became fatter. (Since we are finding now that mothers can pass on their microbiome to their children, women are well advised to work on enhancing their microbiome even prior to conception.) A whole food diet that is low in both refined carbohydrates and animal fat promotes the healthiest microbiome thus helping to regulate appetite.
I have found that many patients who had difficulty losing weight have an altered microbiome. They often have related symptoms such as digestive issues, allergies, or depression. There are simple tests that can help determine the state of the microbiome. If needed, I coach patients on how to use low carb nutrition and helpful supplements to re-establish the healthy microbiome. When the microbiome comes into balance, cravings are lessened and weight loss is much more easily attained.