Gut Health Gurus Blog

Dr Ken Mcgrath on The Microbiome and Sports Performance

Dr Ken Mcgrath on The Microbiome and Sports Performance

Today we have Ken Mcgrath, a microbiologist, giving us the facts on the microbiome. Read on to learn the significance of the soil microbiome, how lactobacilli is a transient bacteria that you should consume daily, how histamine impacts the body, identifying IBS with different bacteria, and the future of sports performance enhancement using probiotics!

Ken Mcgrath’s background is in molecular biology and DNA science. His research was in microbial communities in agriculture and health and he was also managing a DNA sequencing lab for 10 years, where he was running DNA analysis for researchers. Last year he joined Microba to apply that knowledge to understand the human gut microbiome. In his role he’s helping people understand the technology that they use at Microba and how they can use it to really understand what's going on in your gut. 

The Significance of The Soil Microbiome

I grew up on a farm growing grain and we had cattle as well, so I was always interested in the soil microbiota. There is so much we are learning; the soil microbiome interacts with the plant structure heavily. There is a lot of communication happening between the bacteria and the plant. This includes helping growth, providing fertilizers, and the rhizosphere bacteria. For example: certain legumes that harvest particular microbes create structures for them to live in and the bacteria give them nitrogen as a fertilizer in response to food. It's this symbiosis with legumes in particular. Certain soil microbes prime a plant for their immune defense, and it will protect them against fungal diseases if they are present. It is a complex community that changes how plants grow for better or worse. 

Mycorrhizal fungi are remnants of very ancient rainforests and studies have suggested that they extend the root structures of plants to access water much further from the actual plant. If you want to listen to more about this, listen to this episode with Jock Leys. -Kriben Govender

If you have a garden, planting different types of vegetables and herbs is very beneficial. Then going outside and nibbling on them every day will help increase that diversity. Diversity of plants means >> the diversity of prebiotics >> which means the diversity of the gut microbiome. Your diet is one of the strongest drivers of the microbiome. This is why you need different vegetables and fruits each day. If you think you are healthy because you are having 5 servings a day but it’s always the same vegetables, you don't have diversity. Look at what you are eating and try to increase the diversity daily. Try to find a plant you’ve never cooked with before and try to incorporate it into your diet! It will be easier than trying to achieve a number.

A curry powder may have 5 or 6 different spices in that blend and that's a good amount of plant food and polyphenols. The plant fibers will be a boost. If you are picking stuff from the garden there will be soil microbes on and in the food as well. There’s research that shows some microbes can colonize the plant structures themselves! Not only on the outside but in the plants as well. Exposure to the soil itself through gardening is also helpful. -Kriben Govender

Lactobacilli and Colonizing the Gut

At Microba, our senior scientist Dr. Alena Pribyl, has a lot of research she has looked into. It is clear that lactobacillus is not a great colonizer of the human gut. There is a bit of mythology around Lactobacillus. Because it turns out that it colonizes mice's guts very well. They have the right receptors for it to happen. And because so much on the gut microbiome research is done in mice, they thought people would be the same, lactobacillus as a colonizer, which is not true. 

Microba sees lactobacillus in less than 2% of the Australian population's gut. It is probable that even that 2% is just coming through the food and passing through. It may still be helpful at changing the local environment or produce metabolites as it's moving through the gut, but it is not going to stick to your colon and be there afterwards. The benefits would be transient. You wouldn't have it living in your gut long term. If we are eating fermented foods or taking a probiotic that is full of lactobacillus, we need to regularly have this not just once a day.

There is some research showing that probiotics may have a benefit even if they are autoclaved (killed the actual organism) but the metabolites inside the cell can change the local environment in the gut as they pass through and that has a benefit. You don't have to have a live bug to have a good affect.

A lot of people are wanting to consume fermented foods and they think they are having kefir and sauerkraut and it’s important to have it live but you can also use it in cooking because even if you do cook them, the dead bacteria may have some benefits. -Kriben Govender

What is Histamine and How Does it Impact the Body?

Histamine is a metabolite, and it is incredibly common. It is in your food, environment, and is produced by bacteria. In some people, histamine triggers an immune response. A heightened response to other things as well, it is almost like a primer to a reaction. It is a complex thing because it is so prevalent and there are so many factors involved on how people respond to it that it's difficult to work out what would be involved in someone's reaction.

You have the food, environment, the gut microbiome that could all be producing it. Then, the human gut itself and receptors could also produce it. Genetics comes into play because some people may have no histamine receptors and may not have a response and others have gut linings covered in receptors and they will react to small amounts of histamine. If you look at the gut microbiome and the potential on how much it can produce, it's tricky to see whether or not a high level would cause a response without knowing the human genetic sides of things.

You can tell if the gut might be contributing if you have the symptoms of histamine problems in the gut and you have a microbiome that produces a lot of histamine, it's worth shifting this away from a high histamine producing microbiome. There are specific types of bacteria in the gut that produce more histamine than others. There are many novel organisms that are unnamed that Microba discovers through our research and they are histamine producers. 

So, what Microba is doing when we report on histamine, we find the genes, let bacteria do a function (in this case produce histamine) and we count the number of bacteria that have that gene. And that gives you an indication on whether you have a lot of bacteria that produce histamine or only a few that produce it. Even within that you will have some bacteria that are high producers and some that are low producers, that together gives you the overall potential of histamine production. 

The microbiome is a good starting point to see if you have an intolerance to histamine but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. You have to look at everything:

You have to look at the foods you are eating, are they high in histamine?

Look at your environment, look at your own reaction to that.

Are you sensitive to histamines already? 

That gives you a good indication on your human genetics and whether you have the receptors everywhere or whether or not you are a bit more resistant. Looking at all of the information together is needed to get that answer. 

Listen to your own body. If you have a lot of histamine in a food product, notice how your body reacts. This will give you a clue on whether you can tolerate these foods or not, and some people might be best avoiding it. -Kriben Govender

Identifying IBS & Crohn's Disease

Microba isn't just a testing company, we are trying to push forward humanities understanding of the gut and how it’s impacting health. If people want to, they can choose to share their data with Microba’s research team. We remove your name; we just get the results, and we give you a survey on what health conditions you might have. And we use machine learning to trace patterns between the gut microbiome and your health conditions. It's starting to reveal some incredible information. 

One of the big projects we have had is around IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohns and Colitis) trying to see if there are patterns here. Are there certain microbes that are associated with disease states more frequently? It is remarkable because we are seeing that there are a certain group of organisms that are only seen in people that DON’T have IBS, maybe they are protecting the bowel against the diseases? We don't know this for sure, yet we are at the stage of testing single organisms and seeing if they are able to suppress inflammation. This might lead to treatments in the future. 


Some of these bacteria are novel organisms and they don’t even have names in science yet. Organisms that haven’t been able to be detected before because the technology didn’t exist to see them. With metagenomics we capture everything that is in the sample. What that has done has helped build genomes of novel organisms. We get to track them now to see if they are associated with healthy people vs unhealthy people.


Where Are the Discoveries Headed?


You can imagine that you would have some type of monitoring tool built into your bathroom so with a flush of a button you get your health checked every day. This will show you are okay or are there patterns emerging which indicate things might be going in the wrong direction then you can take action. Maybe a grocery recommendation at the end too. Hopefully the future has this in store!

The Rugby League Team’s (Australian Kangaroos) Results with Microba


We tested their gut microbiomes and we looked at what was happening in their gut. We wanted to provide personalized feedback on what they should eat to shift their microbiome into a healthier state. These are high performance athletes; they are looking for any gain that they can get to help them to do better because that 1% extra can be a win or a loss. We were able to talk to them about their results and how to make the changes.


The findings with the team were mostly healthy but not all of them. Some of them had lower diversity in their gut. There was a high ability to breakdown proteins which isn’t always the best thing, but this may have come down to a high protein diet. The biggest takeaway was the personalized approach and seeing which direction would be best for them. Thinking about them as a group is not the right approach. The report for is for each individual and how they can shift their microbiome in the right direction. This needs to be tailored to the individual's needs.


The dietitians working with them will tailor it to the team, but they aren't going to the next level to personalize things to the person's unique microbiome. In the research space there are some discoveries on how the microbiome influences how much oxygen and lung capacity there is and even more research on marathon runners and organisms that seem to be able to give you extra endurance and help you run further than before.


To be able to perform at an athletic level you need to be healthy. The recommendations I have are: having a gut microbiome that can produce short chain fatty acids that can keep your gut happy and healthy, making sure your gut isn’t producing inflammatory compounds like LPS, and just having good gut health in general!


More specifically there are some bacteria that have been linked to specific sports outcomes. There is research coming out in the USA that looked at the gut microbiomes of marathon runners and they noticed that most marathon runners had a higher prevalence of a certain organism and they were wondering why it was more common in marathon runners. So, they isolated the bacteria, they put it into mice, and suddenly the mice could run 13% further. The bacteria were taking lactic acid and converting that back into energy for the body. It was offsetting the effects of lactic acid in the mice and letting them run further. It’s exciting to know that just one single microbe has that much of an increase and effect on the runners. 


That research is now turning into “can we create a sports probiotic?” We might be able to have a drink or tablet to get that benefit, but there aren’t supplements yet! I am sure it is in development. We know that it is in around 2-4% of Australians so there are some people that have the right guts for marathon running. There may even be other novel organisms that do the same thing. It probably comes from various species. You have the extra boost if you have that bacteria in your gut i.e., Veillonella atypica. 


There was talk about people doing gut hacks for their performance. I have heard that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is considering a release saying they will NOT consider probiotics to be doping. This is going to be something that is acceptable. You may even have blends for different sports, it’s exciting to think about.


The microbiome may be linked to obesity and weight loss as well. There are examples where obesity has been transferred and it's always more complex but there are suggestions there that the microbiome has effects on weight loss and gain.


Akkermansia muciniphila 


This organism pops up when we talk about weight loss and diabetes. It is considered one of the good guys to have. It stimulates mucus production but consuming a bit of it itself too. The issue comes when you have too much of it. An overgrowth of that means that there is a big family and not enough food to go around. It eats that mucus layer and reduces it down. That exposes the gut lining to opportunistic pathogens which may cause disease states. Having the balance right (1%-2%) but if you are seeing 20%-30% that might be too much. You might have some issues with your gut lining or gut mucus layer. And if you are in the higher levels then you need to eat different prebiotic fibers, and consider a dietary shift. Diet is a big driver of the microbiome and is one of the main ways to shift it. 


When you do have imbalances in things like Akkermansia or if you have Protobacteria issues,  you need to work with a trained professional. It's hard to hack these things yourself. Work with a practitioner that can guide you with the right dietary interventions as well, then you can test before and after. -Kriben Govender


With Microba, you take the test and then you work with a practitioner that can support and help you through your test. You need to get the most out of these results! Make sure to get a diversity of plants into your diet, watch out for the latest research on sports probiotics, and make sure to get out into your garden! Share this with a friend that could benefit from this information!

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