What We Learned About Gut Health At The Harvard Probiotics Symposium

A HUM RD takes her place as the Elle Woods of gut health. 

Once a year the Harvard Medical School brings together the top microbiome researchers to share their key findings at the Harvard Probiotics Symposium. (Think of it like Comic-Con for the probiotic world! Okay, minus the sweet costumes…) This year, as HUM’s Director of Education, Harvard invited me to attend and learn all about the latest microbiome research. What an honor!

Arriving at Harvard is exactly how you expect it to be. It’s historic, brimming with intelligent people and feels like you’re about to be a part of something very important. Armed with my notepad and intense curiosity, I sat in a lecture room for 2 days straight feverishly taking notes.

via giphy

As with most scientific presentations, the research is very specific and usually leads to the conclusion that more research needs to be done. However, here are my key takeaways.

5 Microbiome Lessons From Harvard

1. Our society has shifted from dealing with infectious diseases to chronic diseases.

Over the past century, the medical profession has been working hard to combat infectious diseases. Polio, mumps, sepsis, pneumonia, and many more diseases although once deadly, are now manageable with modern medicine. However, now we’re seeing a rise in chronic diseases like asthma, diabetes and obesity. In fact about 41% of the population has at least one chronic disease. Yikes!

Why is this? Many physicians are trained with the philosophy to kill the “bad bugs” and keep things as sterile as possible. However, this threatens the diversity of gut microbiome – and consequently, our overall health. Science is finding that the microbiome plays a protective role when it comes to chronic disease. So as we decrease our gut diversity, we also increase the likelihood of developing a chronic disease.

2. Probiotic substrates may be more important than the number strains.

What surprised me most from the entire conference is that while the diversity of our gut and the strains of bacteria in our gut is important – it’s not as important as what our gut bugs are making! Bacteria produce a number of beneficial compounds like short-chain-fatty-acids (SCFA), proteins, vitamins and even neurotransmitters which all impact different aspects of our health. You can help your gut bacteria be even more proficient at producing these compounds by increasing the amount of fiber in your diet. While our bodies don’t digest fiber, the bacteria in our microbiome converts it into things we can use so it’s crucial to get lots in your diet.

3. We don’t need to mega-dose on probiotics.

Until recently, I was under the impression that the greater variety of probiotic strains, the better. Now, I understand that the variety is not as important as targeting the outcome you want to achieve with specific strains. For example, Erika Isolauri, a pediatric physician in Finland found that giving mothers the specific strain of lactobacillus rhamnosis GG increased the efficiency of their babies’ immune systems. Similarly, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what strains will help you meet your health goals. Need help navigating which probiotic strains are right for you? We have a helpful article all about how to choose the right probiotic strains for your beauty goals here.

4. Celiac disease and food allergies are on the rise.

The first case of celiac disease was documented in 1938 and has been on the rise ever year after. Since 1974, the incidence of celiac has been doubling every 15 years. Why are we seeing this rapid increase in celiac and other food allergies? It seems that the lack of gut diversity and permeability, may have something to do with it.

Gut permeability is when your gut lining becomes inflamed and things from your gut end up in your bloodstream where they shouldn’t be. You may be more familiar with its other name: leaky gut. As a result, your immune system kicks into overdrive which may result in reactions such as eczema, inflammation, psoriasis, etc. Gut permeability usually coincides with a lack of gut diversity so to avoid triggering these types of reactions, eat a rich diet of diverse whole foods, healthy fats, and fiber.

5. Our diets are too sterile.

This concept had me shook. Robert Hutkins, a food scientist, expert in fermentation, PhD and professor, made a comment that since he had been in Boston, he was only eating sterile foods. The problem with eating sterile foods is that we don’t get any good bacteria in our bodies. We historically have been able to maintain gut diversity through consuming small amounts of dirt and bacteria on produce, but now everything is sterilized. If you buy bags of pre-washed greens, these have been bleached and washed three times. Similarly, our apples have been washed and coated in a layer to prevent bacteria that could cause spoiling. Pasteurization is another technique use to ensure bacterial strains are killed.

I am not suggesting we go out and eat dirt, or only get unpasteurized foods. But, if you look back through history, many cultures had fermented foods as a staple in their diets. Kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and borsht are all examples. These help keep our immune system strong and our gut bacteria diverse.

Final Thoughts

I was very honored to be among some of the greatest minds working to understand the complex role the microbiome plays in our health at the Harvard Probiotic Symposium. I hope you will incorporate one thing you learned from this article into your daily life. Remember we are not searching for the perfect diet – just trying to eat a little bit better than we did the day before.

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