‘If two people eat the same, do they also have the same poop?’

Our microbiologist, dr. Clara Belzer answered this question from Noa (age 12) on Dutch national radio and explained her research on gut-microbes and health.

“Well the answer is yes and no”, starts Clara Belzer. So it’s a great question!

Yes: feces gets to be more similar (both in looks and in smell) if you eat similar things. For instance, eating corn or red beets gives a distinct colour to poop, and eating eggs a distinct smell. So what you eat directly influences your feces.

At the same time, everyone’s excrements are unique. This is due to the unique assembly of bacteria that live in your gut. When you’re born, the first bacteria colonize your gut. During the rest of your life, this colony of bacteria and other microbes keeps developing; growing and changing in response to your diet, illnesses, stress, antibiotic treatments and other influences. The bacteria in your gut help with the digestion of the food you eat. By breaking down the food molecules they can convert these to vital substances such as vitamins and energy. The substances that are not digested, or are left over, leave the body as poop. So because every individual has a unique composition of gut-bacteria, everyone’s poop is unique.

Interestingly, genetics also influence the composition of gut-bacteria. Therefore, the feces of family members is more similar than that of non-family members, and even twins have more similar poop compared to other siblings.

But diet has the biggest influence on your gut-bacteria. If you eat healthy, your bacteria can function well and produce essential substances and energy. If you eat unhealthily, this can disturb the functioning of your gut-bacteria, and this may even contribute to developing for instance diabetes or obesity. Clara Belzer tells that we can even see from someone’s feces if this person has diabetes, or an infection in the intestines.

So studying someone’s poop can tell if the person is healthy or unhealthy. In Clara Belzer’s research she analyzes the gut-bacteria of an individual, to explore if in the future we can give advice to this person on how to adapt his or her diet to improve the assembly and functioning of the gut-bacteria. “For instance, if we can’t find certain important bacteria in someone’s feces, we want to be able to advise this person to eat whole-wheat bread. Then hopefully this stimulates the growth of this specific bacteria and makes the person feel healthier and have a better stool”, she explains.

Clara Belzer is also using mouse models to study a special bacteria, called Akkermansia muciniphila, that in the future may help in treating diabetes and losing weight. She hopes that within the next ten years this will appear as a substance that you can buy in supermarkets in order to improve your health.

You can listen to the interview (in Dutch) here: https://www.nporadio1.nl/wetenschap-techniek/13810-hebben-mensen-die-hetzelfde-eten-ook-dezelfde-poep?fbclid=IwAR1Ihrnmqcq-APOqWGIyvnBTC0ST-KGnhVeRFF2zO0epT0eGuLvbzykc1Eo

Article written by By Clara Belzer, PhD, and Jeanette Mostert, PhD.

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In my previous blogs, I explained the research questions of my study. This study will be performed in two cohorts which I will elaborate on in this current blog about early life nutrition and studying gut microbiota. The cohorts are called BIBO and BINGO.  

BIBO stands for ‘Basale Invloeden op de Baby’s Ontwikkeling’ (in English: basal influences on  infant’s development). Recruitment of this cohort started in 2006, and a total of 193 mothers and their infants were included. At age 10, 168 mothers and their children still joined the BIBO study; the attrition rate is thus low. The majority of the mothers are highly educated (76%). The number of boys (52%) and girls (48%) in this cohort are roughly equally divided. A unique aspect of the BIBO study is the number of stool samples collected in early life. Also, detailed information about early life nutrition has been recorded during the first six months of life (e.g. information on daily frequency of breastfeeding, formula feeding, and mixed feeding). Together, these stool samples and nutrition diaries provide important insights in the relations between early life nutrition and gut microbiota development. Data about children within the BIBO cohort will be collected at age 12,5 years and 14 years. At 12,5 years, the participants will be invited to the university for an fMRI scan (more information about the fMRI scan will be given in a future blog). At age 14, children’s impulsive behavior will be assessed by means of behavioral tests and (self- and mother-report) questionnaires.

BINGO stands for ‘Biologische INvloeden op baby’s Gezondheid en Ontwikkeling’ (in English: biological influences on infant’s health and development). When investigating biological influences on infant’s health and development, it is important to start before birth. Therefore, 86 healthy women were recruited during pregnancy. Recruitment took place in 2014 and 2015. One unique property of the BINGO cohort is the fact that not only mothers were recruited, but also their partners. The role of fathers is often neglected in research, and thus an important strength of this BINGO cohort. Another unique property is that samples of mothers’ milk were collected three times during the first three months of life, to investigate breast milk composition. As for many infants their diet early in life primarily consists of breast milk, it is interesting to relate breast milk composition to later gut microbiota composition and development. Currently, 79 mothers and children, and 54 fathers are still joining the BINGO study. The average age of the participants at the time of recruitment was 32 years for mothers and 33 years for the father. Majority of the parents within this cohort are highly educated (77%) and from Dutch origin (89%). The number of boys (52%) and girls (48%) in this cohort are roughly equally divided. At age 3, children’s impulsive behavior will be assessed by means of behavioral tests and mother-report questionnaires.

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The human gut is colonized by microorganisms in a similar number as the cells of the human body.

“Microbiota” refers to these microorganisms, and it maintains a symbiotic relationship with the host, contributing to essential functions such as food digestion, energy harvest and storage, the function of the intestinal barrier, and the immune system and protection against pathogenic organisms. Prenatal and postnatal factors can alter the composition of the microbiota, such as stress and diet or the use of antibiotics (see image).

Prenatal and Postnatal factors influence gut-brain axis and mental healthFor instance, stress during pregnancy can alter the composition of vaginal microbiota, which affects the composition of the microbiota of the newborn and is related to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and allergic reactions. Interestingly, there is a bidirectional communication between the GI tract and the central nervous system (the gut-brain axis) that involves neuronal and metabolic pathways, immune and endocrine mechanisms. Changes in the composition of the microbiota can lead to altered development of the brain and increased risk of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as anxiety, depression and autism (see image).

Depression is one of the most recurrent stress-related disorders that highly impacts the quality of life. Fecal samples of patients with depression have a decreased microbial richness and diversity than controls. The use of probiotics have been shown to help with sad mood and negative thoughts, which may be a potential preventive strategy for depression.

Autism is characterized by impaired communication, poor social engagement and repetitive behaviours, with frequent GI symptoms. We know that the bacteria composition is more diverse in autistic individuals than in unaffected subjects.

For other psychiatric disorders, such as Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Schizophrenia, there is indirect evidence for a role of the microbiota, but more studies are needed.

This connection between the gut and brain is two way communication, and is known as “The Gut-Brain Axis.”

Our knowledge of the impact of gut microbiota on brain function is growing fast, which may pave the way to possible applications for the treatment of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Authors Judit Cabana, Bru Cormand, and Noelia Fernandez Castillo are in the Department of Genetics, Microbiology & Statistics, University of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

More information can be found in: Felice VD, O’Mahony SM. The microbiome and disorders of the central nervous system. (2017) Pharmacol Biochem Behav. Sep;160:1-13.

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