All Guts Are Not The Same

Gut Evolution

Those in non industrialized parts of the world, like rural Africa, have healthier guts, microbiotas, and immune systems than people in the Western world. This is because they use less antibiotics, they have more exposure to environmental bacteria (having a less hygienic environment), the consumption of virtually no processed food, and vastly different lifestyles.

Why does this matter?

It matters because we see much less inflammatory and immune related illness, like celiac disease, obesity, IBS, depression, and heart disease, in these populations, which might tell us how we can reduce the incidence of these conditions in our world.

Now we must not just copy people from Africa, we cannot micromanage an ecosystem, we cannot force our microbiota to match that of a hunter gatherer, in fact we could end up hurting ourselves doing so! But what we can do is try to improve the health of our environment and by doing so create an environment that supports healthy bacteria.

Borrowing the diets of other cultures

It is well know that some Africans eat more carbs, especially grains, does that mean we should also do this? This is a question often asked by people because of the research coming out of Africa. Let's look at this from an environmental perspective: Different environments require different amounts of rain. If our ecosystem is not African, would it make sense for us to suddenly expose our ecosystem to the rainfall level of Africa?

Our ecosystem is very different from the African ecosystem, in fact, eating like an African hunter gatherer could cause us more harm than good, just like sudden downpours can cause flash flooding and mudslides in arid climates.


The Study

In 2010, a study was performed comparing a group of urban Italians to a group of rural Africans from Burkina Faso. This study received quite a bit of attention because the Africans had significantly different microbiotas from the Italians. The Africans had better overall bacterial diversity and had more of the Bacteroidetes bacteria group and less Firmicutes bacteria. Correspondingly , the Africans had healthier body weights than the Italians. The Africans also ate lots of carbohydrates and grains.

This caused many healthcare professionals to recommend that we Westerners consume more carbs and grains in order to make our guts more like the guts of the Africans. In other words, the observation that Africans had healthier weights, better bacterial diversity, and less Firmicutes, plus the observation that they consumed high amounts of grains and carbs, led many to conclude (mistakenly) that everyone should now eat more grains and carbs to improve diversity, decrease Firmicutes, and be skinny.

To frase it better, (skinny like the Africans). Does this overly assumptive logic smell funny to you? It does to me! Here's why. This type of wishful thinking is why we have so many fad diets and so many people jumping on the bang waggons of these fad diets. Let's look at some important factors.

The Africans in the above study.

1. Consumed about half the calories the Italians did.

2. Consumed virtually np processed foods and ate minimally processed grains

3. They were far more active.

4. Had an incredible amount of contact with their less hygienic environment and all the bacteria it contained

5. Presumably had far less stress and far more sunlight exposure

I can already hear you asking about the less hygienic exposure of the Africans, how can that be a good thing?

The bacterial exposure in these types of environments has been repeatedly shown to have a tremendous positive impact on the development of a healthy immune system, this then helps prevent, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, asthma, IBS, and obesity or being overweight. The Africans are saturated in bacteria all day long, which is a major reason for their increased microbiota bacterial diversity and healthy immune system.

All of the above should alert you to the fact that for many people, taking the approach of copying the diet of another, very different population is a BAD IDEA.

The Paleo Diet.

Many people take on the Paleo diet, mainly this has come fromt the crossfit world. Paleo diet enthusiasts often strive to replicate our hunter gatherer ancestors. I understand the desire to learn and replicate this, but as you probably already know the answer, we shouldn't just do this blindly.

Allow me to introduce you to a member of our gut microbiota called Methanobrevibacter smithii or M. Smithii for short. Human studies have repeatedly shown that when this bug overgrows, it causes constipation, gas, and bloating. It has also been suggested M. smithii may cause high cholesterol and blood sugar levels. So high levels are not good, however in African hunter gatherer populations it has been reported they have the highest levels of this M smithii. Does this means they are constipated and have a lot of gas? NO. For Africans having high levels of M. smithii is likely a survival advantage. This is because M smithii slows the movement of food through the intestinal tract, allowing more breakdown and absorption of food and calories, they eat a lot og high hard to digest fibrous plant foods, one's that often low in calories, this is beneficial.

However most Westernised people doing these types of diets, including the Paleo people, this could cause constipation, weight gain, high cholesterol, and higher blood sugar levels, which are linked to diabetes. So this is the case where we may want to rethink the ancestral paradigm.


In the next blog we look a little deeper into this topic.


The above information is taken from the Healthy Gut Healthy You Book, by Dr. Michael Ruscio

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