If you’ve ever marveled at the complexity of an ecosystem like the rainforest, then you’ll be surprised to know that just as much biodiversity exists within you, specifically in your gut. Not millions, not billions, but trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses and even bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) exist in this entire world within you. They eat what you eat and then produce molecules that help them and their neighbors thrive.
History of Metabolites
Some of these molecules are important in maintaining their metabolism and because of that are referred to as metabolites. In fact, the modern world owes an enormous debt to the discovery of a certain class of microbial metabolites that has saved more lives than any other medical advancement in history: antibiotics.
It was discovered in the early 20th century that a common mold was secreting the metabolite that was killing the staphylococcus bacteria it was coming into contact with. That metabolite was named penicillin and it single handedly changed the course of history.
From then on, the modern world paid closer attention to what bacteria made, and we haven’t stopped. In fact, we’re learning more and more about the impact of microbial metabolites that are produced in our gut and their effect on our health. The areas of research seem to be endless, from the impact of these metabolites on the advancement of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), to their connection to the development of colorectal cancer. Even the ability to impact our own metabolism is an obvious focus, since having a faster metabolism is something we would all like, especially as we age.
Types of Metabolites
Many of these studies measure the presence of specific metabolites, some of which you may be familiar with already:
- Short Chain Fatty Acids (acetate, propionate, butyrate)
- Secondary Bile Acids (DCA, LCA, UDCA)
- Carotenoids & Phenols
Butyrate and buddies
When you eat foods that are higher in fiber, these wonderful bacteria and fungi eat as much as they can and then release the beneficial short chain fatty acids, acetate, propionate and butyrate. Possibly the most popular of these is butyrate, especially with its well-documented effect on keeping the intestinal lining healthy in a world that is becoming increasingly aware of a phenomenon called “leaky gut”. Lack of butyrate has even been linked to migraines. While butyrate is quickly becoming a superstar in the supplement world, it’s not alone in its health benefits. All of these short chain fatty acids have been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and anti-microbial effects.
What’s the Deal with Bile?
We are all taught that it’s the liver that makes bile and that the gallbladder stores the bile until it’s time to release it into the small intestine after you’ve eaten a complex meal. This bile is then used by the microbes in your gut to help digest your food, the microbes, themselves, produce what’s known as secondary bile acids. What we’re learning now is how closely the amount of secondary bile acids are related to diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and colorectal cancer. Less bile acid has been associated with bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and inflammation. Turns out, diet, antibiotic use, and disease affect this delicate balance of the microbiome-bile acid pool.
The Power of the Rainbow
We’ve heard it all our lives: eat your fruits and veggies! And I’m sure you’ve heard the term “eat the rainbow” before. But did you know that those bright colors are actually pigments that turn into metabolites called carotenoids & polyphenols that can reduce inflammatory disorders, help maintain healthy glucose levels and help maintain gut health? Polyphenols, specifically, are really good at inhibiting the growth of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and can even have a pain relief effect.
We’re only starting to scratch the surface of what these powerful plant-based chemicals can do for us when processed properly by our gut microbes. One thing’s for sure, keep munching on the colorful fruits and veggies and it will pay off in spades.
Keeping a healthy microbiome can seem like a daunting task. We’re only starting to learn what a healthy microbiome looks like, what it can do for different aspects of your health and what happens when that balance is compromised. Learning about the power of the metabolites that the gut microbiome produces helps shed some light into the delicate balance between our bodies and our tiny little buddies that live inside of us. And hopefully it gives just a little more motivation to feed your beneficial microbes some of their favorite foods that produce these metabolites.
So the next time you see brightly colored, fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts, just think of all the anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-microbial benefits you’ll be enjoying thanks to your trillions of resident gut microbes.