The Study of What the Little Guys Produce – Metabolomics

September 25, 2018 in Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

I’m guessing that by now most people know that we have a huge microbiome; the community of trillions of microorganisms that live and function in our body. The microbiome and its products have actually become a gigantic trend in health research. For many health professionals, including myself, the extent of the impact of our microbiome is fascinating and amazing. So far, researchers have established that there is interaction between the microbes in our intestines and most of the systems in our bodies. That includes all the vessels, especially those that carry blood (vascular); the vast network of nerve cells and fibers that transmit nerve impulse (nervous); the system that chemically controls the functions of cells, tissues, and organs through secretion of hormones (endocrine – Note: This is where diabetes fits into the picture.); and the system that protects us from foreign substances, disease, and degradation of cells (immune system). So incredible!

Certainly, it’s been common information for dietitians/nutritionists to be taught that the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that are in our intestines help with digestion, and are helpful, in that they manufacture certain nutrients, and release those nutrients having a wide-range of health benefits. What I never imagined is that science would discover an entire field of study, Metabolomics, which studies the metabolites of the microbiome and the effects upon the body.

One of the reasons that there is so much interest in the microbiome is that it appears that the metabolites have been found to be predictive of the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

A Harvard Heart Letter from the Harvard Medical School explained very carefully, how one of the well-known metabolites of the microbiome impacts arthrosclerosis. In essence, this is how it goes:
• TMA (trimethylamine) forms when our microbes feed on choline, a nutrient found in red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs.
• The TMA, goes to the liver and is converted to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), this substance has been strongly connected with the formation of artery-clogging plaque (atherosclerosis).
This surely got my attention: “People with the highest TMAO levels were 62% more likely to experience serious cardiovascular problems than those with the lowest levels. The researchers noted that the higher TMAO levels were also related to higher mortality rates. And, the frosting on the cake, the TMAO links were independent of traditional risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, and kidney problems. Naturally, everyone wants to find some way of snagging TMAO and keep it from doing its dirty work; but that will take some time.

If you’d rather hear about a positive benefit of the metabolites of the microbiome, the same newsletter gave an example of how microbes that live in the mouth interact with nitrates from vegetables to form nitrites and nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels. Voila! Lower blood pressure. So all this time, we nutritionist have been thinking that it was just the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in the vegetables that were at the base of the benefits to blood pressure from vegetables. But in fact, our bacteria are doing their part in protecting us. In addition, the researchers have also discovered that high dietary sodium levels change the composition of the gut microbe populations. Everything is so much more complex than ever imagined.

Now, I don’t have a clue how long it’s going to take to learn about the benefits and harms of the metabolites of our microbiome; but I can recognize a similarity with the discovery of phytonutrients and their benefits. What I’m trying to say is that like the phytonutrients, the metabolites of the microbiome are going to take decades to elucidate and study.

Even if we never learn all the exact benefits of a healthy microbiome in our lifetime, we can definitely start reaping the benefits. Like what I was alluding to with the phytonutrients (Sure there are 25,000 or more; and we certainly don’t have a clue what they all do.) But can we benefit, by eating a varied diet of colorful plant foods? This new study of Metabolomics, seems to be headed the same way. We shouldn’t wait to take advantage of this very incomplete and new area of study. We do know that a diet that avoids red meat, limits salt, and includes lots of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains has a favorable effect upon the gut microbiome. Let’s give the little guys a chance to help us out.