Over the next few weeks, most of us will be eating copious amounts of chocolate, wine, and cheese made with the kindness of bacteria and fungi. These tiny microbes are hard at work turning raw materials into the foods we enjoy.
As well as providing delicious food, microbes – specifically the vast army that lives in our guts – are also busy producing chemicals known as probiotics that improve our health in all sorts of ways.
Regular readers know all about probiotics, the live microbes found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and some cheeses.
You’re also familiar with the term prebiotics – foods like legumes, whole grains and some 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 food is high in fiber: lots of vegetables (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?);
These are the chemicals that good microbes produce and are a hot research area. It’s thought to be key to why our gut microbes are linked to a variety of benefits, such as a better functioning immune system, reduced susceptibility to allergies, and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
One particularly interesting post-biotic is butyrate. A type of short-chain fatty acid, the lining of the gut, is a barrier that stops bacteria and other toxins from entering your bloodstream. If this lining begins to break down, a condition known as leaky gut syndrome can occur, which can lead to all sorts of distressing problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. And pieces of partially digested food can cause allergic reactions if they leak from the intestines.
Butyrate also helps regulate the immune system and reduce chronic inflammation (linked to many conditions, including heart disease, dementia and cancer). And one of the best ways to increase your butyrate levels is by eating foods rich in inulin, a prebiotic found in onions, leeks, garlic, bananas, and Jerusalem artichokes.
A recent study at King’s College London found that eating a handful of almonds can significantly increase butyrate levels, even in people with unhealthy diets.
But what about taking butyrate supplements? There is evidence that this can be effective. In the year In a 2012 trial at the Poznań University of Medical Sciences in Poland, 66 adults with IBS were given a butyrate supplement or a placebo. After four weeks, those taking butyrate reported significantly less pain and swelling.
In another study, from the University of Pavia in Italy, nine of 13 IBS patients given butyrate reported improved symptoms.
One problem with nutritional supplements is that they often taste terrible (due to the chemical structure of butyrate). More importantly, most of the butyrate is broken down long before it reaches the lower intestine, reducing its benefits. However, a team at the University of Chicago has developed a packaging method so that not only does it taste better, but more of it gets to where it’s needed.
When mice bred to be allergic to peanuts were given the new supplement, it increased butyrate levels in the gut and prevented a life-threatening reaction to peanuts, they said.
Unfortunately, not all post-biotics are good for us, or sometimes not in large quantities.
Another short-chain fatty acid called propionate also supports your gut lining. But a 2021 review from the University of South Florida concluded that high doses are neurotoxic and ‘may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.’
They warn that as we age, our gut becomes more populated with bacteria that are the main producers of propionate.
In addition to identifying new compounds produced by gut bacteria, studying postbiotics has helped explain why some people benefit from eating certain foods while others do not. For example, we know that eating soy-based foods can ease menopausal symptoms. But many women don’t have the gut microbes that convert soy to ecol chemicals, so it doesn’t benefit everyone.
In the year In a 2015 study published in the journal Menopause, researchers at the University of Washington examined the presence of Ecol in the urine of 357 menopausal women who regularly ate soy foods.
Those who ate more soy, and whose microbes were excreting more ecol, were less likely to suffer from hot flushes and night sweats. But only a third of the women had the right microbes to produce ECHO.
Do supplements help? In a recent study from Japan, 81 percent of women who took a supplement containing Ecol experienced significant improvements.
So this year, as you pare down your Christmas fare, spare a thought for those hard-working microbes that not only produce some of the food, but also keep you healthy by converting what you eat into chemicals.
Make sure the food is high in fiber to give them something to chew on: lots of veggies (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?), nuts, nuts (Princess!), sweet soups, some dark chocolate (cocoa has 30 fiber per ounce), and maybe some probiotics. A rich aged cheese.
Friendship advice for guys like me
I’ve sat down to write Christmas cards recently, and most will include something along the lines of ‘Sorry I didn’t see you this year, but see you in 2023’.
Unfortunately, I’m bad at keeping my boyfriends. My only consolation is that I am not alone. In a 2019 YouGov survey, almost one in five men said they had no close friends (compared to one in ten women).
Research shows that the reason men are so bad at dating friends is because they overestimate how much they want to hear from them and feel embarrassed about reaching out. If you’re like me, a bit of a geek, there are a couple of things you can try.
I’ll be sitting down to write Christmas cards soon, and most will include something along the lines of ‘Sorry I didn’t see you this year, but see you in 2023’.
One 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 opportunity for male bonding.
You can also send a text, email or note to your ex. Don’t be shy: Studies show that most people love to meet. In a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, when people were asked to send a short note to someone in their social circle they had not seen recently, the recipients were asked how much they appreciated the gesture. The senders of the note must have guessed how much it was appreciated, especially by people they had not been in contact with for a long time.
I recently caught up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in over a year to invite him to a choir service at New College, Oxford, where we were both students. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it, but it was a pleasure to meet him and I hope to see him in 2023.
How to stop during flight
If time seems to speed up as you get older, Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in the US, has an explanation. As we age, electrical signals take longer to travel around our brains – slowing down the rate at which we form new mental images. Our youthful minds can take in so many images that the days of youth seem long to us. But you can extend the time with novel experiences. So if life is going too fast, try to learn new things.
Did you sleep less than normal this week? Blame it on the December 8th full moon, known (for obvious reasons) as the Cold Moon. In the year A 2013 study from the University of Basel in Switzerland found that during a full moon, we sleep for about 20 minutes (with lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin).
The next full moon, January 6, is known as the Wolf Moon after the howling of hungry wolves.