Research Briefs, Science & Technology

The gut microbiome in disease and health

There are thousands of different bacterial species living inside our intestines. This environment, called the gut microbiome, provides the body with key vitamins and ensures a healthy immune system. The composition of the gut microbiome is key: Dysbiosis, a condition that occurs when ‘bad’ bacteria take over the gut, is linked to a wide variety of diseases ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to autism spectrum disorder. 

A group of researchers from McGill and the Université de Montréal found that dysbiosis is often correlated with fibromyalgia, a disease marked by chronic pain, constant fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems. 

Their results were published in a paper in the journal Pain in November. Dr. Amir Minerbi, a pain physician-scientist at the Rambam Health Campus in Haifa, Israel, was one of the paper’s lead researchers. 

“Fibromyalgia is very frustrating for patients,” Minerbi said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “They seem okay on the outside, but inside, […] it feels like having the flu for a very long time [….] It is frustrating for physicians, because we are not good at diagnosing fibromyalgia. It takes four years to diagnose, and […] after diagnosis, even with the best treatment, [the patient] may still [experience] symptoms.”

This frustration was the catalyst for investigating the relationship between the gut and fibromyalgia. Their hypothesis was justified, since the microbiome has been associated with other chronic pain disorders, such as chronic dysfunction pelvic pain and chronic fatigue syndrome

In the study, researchers collected stool samples from people with and without fibromyalgia. Through sequencing bacterial DNA found in the stool samples, they found that people with fibromyalgia had more bacterial species associated with factors such as inflammation, inhibition of brain activity, and metabolism of organic acids within their microbiome. Furthermore, patients with more pronounced symptoms of fibromyalgia had higher amounts of bacteria associated with such factors. 

These findings, however, are still preliminary and represent only a correlation rather than causation. There is still the possibility that fibromyalgia causes an altered microbiome, instead of the other way around. Nevertheless, this opens the door for better diagnosis and treatment of fibromyalgia through examining the health of patients’ microbiomes. 

Promoting a healthy gut microbiome might entail incorporating a wide variety of plant-based and fermented foods with plenty of prebiotics into one’s diet. Prebiotics are compounds that alter the gut microbiome to grow beneficial microbes. They are frequently absent from the current Western diet, which is characterized by large amounts of meat and processed foods. 

At McGill, the Microbiome Project aims to promote good bacteria and avoid dysbiosis. Founded by Julian Russell, U2 Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and John Weilenmann, M1 Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the club has hosted numerous workshops on how to make all types of foodstuffs, such as hot sauces and natural wines, that are based on fermentation and therefore contain plenty of live bacteria called probiotics. The group hopes to steer clear of artificial chemicals commonly used in commercial products. They also aim to tackle other aspects of life that promote a healthy microbiome, such as exercising and sleeping enough.

“We focus on various types of fermentation, as well as a lifestyle component,” Russell said. “A healthy body and a healthy gut go together, so we encourage people to take their exercise and sleep seriously [….] If you’re not living a healthy lifestyle, [that is] going to negatively impact the good bacteria that live in you, [allowing] you to be susceptible to pathogens.”

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