EU-funded researchers have achieved a deeper understanding of how microbes in the gut can influence energy balance and behaviour. This could lead to new ways of tackling weight gain, eating disorders and even psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression.
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Microbes found in the gut influence the development and function of organs and gastrointestinal diseases, and also play a role in metabolic and psychiatric conditions.
The EU-funded MYNEWGUT project, which is due for completion in 2018, has provided scientists and medical professionals with new insights into the role gut microbiota plays in maintaining good health.
If we could modulate the composition and function of our gut microbiota, this could help in controlling energy balance and body weight gain, eating disorders and even psychiatric conditions, says project coordinator Yolanda Sanz of the National Research Council (IATA-CSIC) in Spain.
The food and healthcare sectors could be able to use the research to apply more effective dietary strategies and develop probiotics and other products that contribute to a persons long-term health. The project will also help policymakers put in place more precise nutritional recommendations, and give stakeholders stronger scientific information to support health claims. This in turn will inform consumers who want to make healthier choices.
Translating these new findings into practical solutions will ultimately contribute to healthier lifestyles and increase the long-term well-being of EU citizens, explains Sanz. Through promoting different aspects of gut health, we expect to help improve the position of the EU in the field of preventing diet-related diseases at every level, from research communities to citizens and from policymakers to industry.
A key project finding has been the presence of specific bacteria in the gut, which could help to determine whether a child is at risk of becoming obese. These bacteria will help researchers to identify microbiome-based biomarkers and associated lifestyles that represent an obesity risk.
The MYNEWGUT partners have also identified specific bacteria with differential effects on body weight regulation and glucose tolerance, which could lead to the next generation of probiotics or biotherapeutic products for improving conditions such as obesity and metabolic syndrome.
The project has also focused on pioneering dietary intervention studies. Researchers began by identifying ingredients that they believe could mediate communication between gut microbiota and the whole body. These include a fibre with prebiotic-like effects and the next generation of probiotics, says Sanz.
Researchers then investigated how these components interact with the gut microbiome in obese subjects with metabolic risk factors, and the consequent metabolic and physiological effects.
High-protein diets exceeding recommended intake levels are frequently consumed by people wishing to lose weight, says Sanz. However, these diets increase the amount of undigested protein reaching the colon, which leads to the production of bacterial metabolites that can have potentially beneficial or deleterious impacts that have also been investigated in the MyNewGut project.
Future dietary and lifestyle recommendations
Researchers found that microbiome-associated functions were influenced not only by the amount of protein but also by the kind of protein in the diet.
These findings indicate that not only does the amount of dietary protein matter, but also the source, says Sanz. This should be considered in future dietary recommendations regarding the long-term health consequences partly mediated by the microbiome.
The project also uncovered new evidence that high fat diets not only cause obesity in mice but also depression-like behaviour. The behaviours are associated with significant changes in the composition and diversity of the intestinal microbiota.
Researchers have also identified how different habits influence microbiota and programme stress responses in later life with further consequences on metabolic and mental health.
When our gut microbiota diversity is altered, this can influence our mental health, contributing to anxiety, stress and depression, says Sanz. In the immediate future, results from these studies will help us to draw up new dietary guidelines and promote probiotic development with a view to boosting both gut and brain health.