The rise of designer microbiomes

Designer microbiomes are the new wellness must-have – here’s what it means for your gut health.

Gut health has been the wellness industry’s new black for several years.

It’s the reason we’re all swigging kombucha cocktails while munching on kimchi buddha bowls and fruit with kefir yoghurt.

But these days, the attention is on a growing, and perhaps even more important, field of research: The microbiome.

What is gut microbiome?

“Your gut microbiome is made up trillions of bacteria, fungi, yeast and other microbes found in the digestive tract,” says Amy Loughman, psychologist and researcher at Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre.

“There are microbiomes on every surface that hosts life but, generally when we talk about the microbiome, we’re referring to the gut because it plays a role in everything from digestion and immune function to mental health and weight maintenance.”

Why is the microbiome so important?

Unlike genetics, which you’re born with, Dr Loughman says the microbiome is much more modifiable and can be impacted by everything from diet and lifestyle to stress.

“Bacteria make up the largest proportion of microbes in the microbiome and have the greatest impact on health, and the food you eat is the main way those bacteria survive,” she explains.

“But different foods feed different types of bacteria, which has the potential to change the composition of the gut.”

It’s this concept that has scientists questioning if what we eat can be used to encourage the growth of certain strains of bacteria (or other gut flora) and, therefore, promote specific health outcomes.

Enter designer microbiomes.

But first, probiotics v prebiotics

Though the two are often confused, probiotics are life strains of bacteria and prebiotics are used to feed them.

“Both are likely to change the composition of the gut,” Dr Loughman explains.

“But, at this stage, if you take a particular probiotic or prebiotic, we’re not sure how much of it will even make it to the large intestine and, after it does, what effect it will have on health is unknown.”

The rise of personalised nutrition

The idea of personalised nutrition isn’t new but recent years have seen increasing interest in how designer microbiomes can be used to achieve myriad health goals – such as eating specific strains of probiotics to achieve glowing skin, or eating certain prebiotics to improve heart health.

“The premise of personalised medicine – that everybody’s body is different and responds differently to their environment – is absolutely true, but that’s also why it’s so hard,” Dr Loughman says.

“For most health conditions we don’t how what the perfect gut microbiome is, but we are starting to get there.”

The great designer microbiome debate

At this stage, Dr Loughman explains, the concept of designer microbiomes is best characterised for blood glucose response after a study by researchers from the Weizmann Institute in Israel found factors such as diet, antibiotics and mental health can lead to variations in bacterial composition.

That team has now released an app, DayTwo, in the US and Europe.

“You can send your stool sample and they will give you a personalised diet based on an algorithm from their study,” she says.

“But that particular study was specifically about blood glucose response so, for anything else, there is no science to support it yet.”

So are designer microbiomes a fad or the future?

It might not be a fad exactly, but Dr Loughman warns that just because a lot of people are doing it doesn’t mean there is a lot of science behind it.

“I think we will get to a point where we can say that ‘for this particular disease, this is how we can support it with diet’,” Dr Loughman says.

“But are we there yet? Not quite. I think it’s excitement before evidence.”

Written by Tianna Nadalin.