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Gutsy Research into our Health

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Yvonne Ardley, Staff

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Emerging research from Perth universities and hospitals indicates a strong link between health and gut microbiome.

Gut microbiome, previously referred to as intestinal microflora, are microorganisms which live within the human gut.

At the forefront of science and research is a large amount of evidence suggesting gut flora has a significant impact on overall health.

Since the first medical fecal transplant in humans was conducted in 1958, this procedure used to treat patients with chronic bowel disease has grown in popularity – particularly in the last five years, and has been a contributor to the expanding interest and research into how gut health impacts overall health.

The fecal transplant procedure involves introducing fecal matter from a healthy person to the gut of a sick patient with a chronic bowel disease in order to colonise good bacteria in the gut.

The most positive result has been seen in patients suffering from recurrent clostridium difficile infection (CDI), however, science is only at the beginning of understanding the role microorganisms play in not only bowel disease, but also in general health.

A large longitudinal study conducted by Broad Institute in 2016 showed a link between Alzheimer’s and gut microbiome, while more research suggests gut microbiome could impact health issues like autoimmune disease, eczema, asthma and obesity.

A study by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is currently underway – looking at probiotic supplementation in premature babies with low birth weights.

Doctor Tobias Strunk – an intensive care specialist at King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEMH) says that all intensive care units for preterm babies (born before 28 weeks) are now using probiotic supplementation, after the process which began at KEMH, saw promising results.

“King Edward has been a pioneer in the application of using probiotics – they have been using it routinely for years” he said.

Preterm infants are often at risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) – which can be potentially fatal, however the use of probiotics has seen a reduction of NEC by 50-60%.

Doctor Strunk said how gut health in our developmental stages impacts our health later in life is still a mystery.

“There may be unanticipated consequences, such as an increase in obesity or an impact on the immune system,” he said.

“We’re probably some way away from even knowing what a normal microbiome may look like, as there are regional and ethnic differences. However, we do know there is reciprocal influence between microbiome and its host – If you have a certain microbiome you have a higher chance of being obese yourself”.

Dr Strunk said that a lot of the development seen in microbiome research was due to the improvement of previously costly and complicated equipment.

“Some of the tools to analyse the microbiome have only recently become widely available. We can now afford more studies.”

Along with research into probiotics, the problems associated with antibiotics on gut microbiome are gaining notoriety.

Dr Strunk said early life exposure to antibiotics may increase the chance of suffering life-long adverse effects.

“In mothers and babies, it’s often the safest option to be born via C-section, however elective procedures may not be the best for children.”

“Mothers may want to reconsider this type of procedure if it’s merely for convenience,” he said.

Research has shown that gut microbiomes in infants who were born via C-section more closely resemble bacteria that is commonly seen on skin, rather than bacteria commonly found in the gut. Doctor Strunk says a way to combat this could potentially be to cultivate the types of bacteria an infant would be exposed to in a vaginal birth and expose them to the baby after the C-section.

“There are studies in very early stages of research that have used the approach using swabs in the vaginal canal.”

Doctor Strunk said a healthy diet could  help maintain a healthy gut microbiome.

“For the general public, a good diet would be the Mediterranean diet. Unprocessed and dairy foods were also of benefit.”

Despite interesting research done so far on the microbiome, much remained to be discovered about these tiny organisms within our stomachs.

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