Over the next few weeks, most of us are going to be consuming a lot of chocolate, wine and cheese, which have been kindly made for us by bacteria and fungi. These tiny microbes do the hard work of converting raw ingredients into the foods we enjoy so much.
In addition to providing us with delicious food, microbes – especially the vast army of those living in our guts – are also busy producing chemicals known as postbiotics that improve our health in all sorts of ways.
Regular readers will know all about probiotics, the live microbes found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and some cheeses: they contain “good” bacteria that stimulate our colony of gut microbes (the microbiome ).
You’re probably also familiar with the term prebiotics – foods such as legumes, whole grains and certain vegetables, which are high in fiber and feed our good gut bacteria.
But postbiotics may be new to you.
To give them something to chew on, make sure the meal has plenty of fibre: lots of vegetables (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?)
These are the chemicals produced by good microbes and they are a very popular area of research. They are believed to be the key to why our gut microbes are linked to a range of benefits, such as better immune system function, reduced risk of allergies and lower levels of depression and moodiness. anxiety.
One of the postbiotics proving to be particularly interesting is butyrate. A type of short-chain fatty acid, it helps maintain the intestinal lining, the barrier that prevents bacteria and other toxins from escaping into your blood. If this lining begins to break down, a condition known as leaky gut syndrome can develop, which can lead to all sorts of distressing issues, including irritable bowel syndrome. And if fragments of partially digested food leak from the intestine, this can trigger allergic reactions.
Butyrate also helps regulate your immune system and reduce chronic inflammation (linked to a host of diseases, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer). And one of the best ways to boost your butyrate levels is to eat foods rich in inulin, a prebiotic found in onions, leeks, garlic, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes.
A recent study from King’s College London found that eating a handful of almonds can also significantly increase butyrate levels, even in people with otherwise unhealthy diets.
But what about just taking butyrate supplements? There is evidence that it can be effective. In a trial conducted at Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland in 2012, 66 adults with IBS were given either butyrate supplements or a placebo. After four weeks, those receiving the butyrate reported significantly less pain and bloating.
In another study, from the University of Pavia in Italy, nine of 13 IBS patients given butyrate reported improvement in symptoms.
One problem with supplements is that they often taste horrible (due to the chemical structure of butyrate). More importantly, much of the butyrate is broken down long before it can reach the lower intestine, reducing its benefits. However, a team at the University of Chicago has developed a way to package it so it not only tastes better, but more of it gets to where it’s needed.
They reported that when mice bred to be allergic to peanuts were given the new supplement, it increased intestinal levels of butyrate and prevented a life-threatening reaction when given peanuts.
Unfortunately, not all postbiotics are good for us, or not in the large quantities sometimes produced.
Another short-chain fatty acid called propionate also helps support your gut lining. But a 2021 review from the University of South Florida concluded that high levels of it are neurotoxic and “may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.”
They warned that as we age, our intestines harbor more bacteria which are the main producers of propionate.
In addition to helping identify new compounds produced by gut bacteria, the study of postbiotics has helped explain why some people benefit from eating certain foods while others do not. We know, for example, that eating soy foods can alleviate menopausal symptoms. But that doesn’t help everyone, because many women don’t have the gut microbes that turn soy into a chemical called equol.
In a study published in the journal Menopause in 2015, researchers at the University of Washington tested the urine of 357 women with severe menopausal symptoms, who regularly ate soy foods, for the presence of equol.
Those who ate a lot of soy and whose microbes produced a lot of equol had significantly fewer hot flashes and night sweats. But only a third of the women had the right microbes to produce equol.
Will supplements help? In a recent study in Japan, 81% of women taking a supplement containing equol experienced significant improvements.
So this year, as you devour your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for those hard-working microbes that not only helped produce some of this food, but will be busy turning what you eat into chemicals for keep you healthy.
To feed them, make sure the meal has plenty of fibre: lots of vegetables (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?), nuts, devils on horseback (prunes!), hearty soups, dark chocolate (cocoa is 30 percent fiber) and, perhaps, probiotic-rich aged cheese.
Friendship Advice for Introverted Men Like Me
I’ll be sitting down to write a stack of Christmas cards soon, and many will include something like “sorry didn’t see you this year, but let’s meet again in 2023”.
Unfortunately, I find it difficult to maintain my male friendships. My only consolation is that I’m not alone: in a YouGov survey in 2019, nearly one in five men said they had no close friends (compared to just one in ten women).
Studies suggest that one of the reasons men are so bad at following their friends is that they seriously underestimate how much they’d like to hear from them and overestimate the embarrassment of reaching out. If you’re someone like me, a little introverted, there are a few things you can try.
I’ll be sitting down to write a stack of Christmas cards soon, and many will include something like “sorry didn’t see you this year, but let’s meet again in 2023”
The first is to join a club or group of like-minded people – I’ve been a member of an all-male book club for over 15 years, and I really appreciate this chance to create a bit of male-to-male bonding.
You can also text, email, or note an old friend. Don’t feel shy: Research shows that most people like to be contacted. In a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, people were asked to send a short note to someone in their social circle whom they had not seen recently, while the recipients were asked to say how much they appreciated the gesture. It turns out that the senders of the note massively underestimated how much she was appreciated, especially by those who had been out of touch the longest.
I recently got in touch with an old friend, whom I had not seen for over a year, to invite him to join us for a Christmas carol service at New College, Oxford, where we were both students. Unfortunately he couldn’t come, but it was nice to catch up and I’m optimistic that we will really see each other again in 2023.
How to stop time passing
If time seems to speed up with age, Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in the United States, has an explanation. He says that as we age, electrical signals take longer to travel through our brains, reducing the rate at which we process new mental images. The days seemed longer when we were younger because our youthful minds could take more pictures. But you can extend the time with new experiences. So if life goes too fast, try to learn new things.
Have you slept less than usual this week? Blame the December 8 full moon, known as the Cold Moon (for obvious reasons). A 2013 study from the University of Basel in Switzerland found that during the full moon, we sleep 20 minutes less (with lower levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone).
The next full moon, January 6, is known as Wolf Moon, after hungry wolves howl desperately for food.