Imagine you are seated in a space filled with public exhibiting all their diverse and obviously visible human traits. Most easily detected are gender, height, and weight, followed by size, age, and race or ethnicity. Your eyes scan the room, not in search of differences, but instead seeking out similarities profound in their ability to link you to another. However, in this scenario, one thing you may have in common is not discernible to the eye. Ready for a surprise? You may share with several of your “roommates” an identical composition of gut bacteria, placing you in one of potentially three categories only recently identified as enterotypes. Of course, expressing curiosity as to someone’s “gut type” isn’t a great way to begin a conversation. It could quickly get you shunned, if not slapped. It obviously is not a very sexy topic, but when placed within the context of functional modules meant to advance our knowledge of human health, it is uniquely provocative.
While many in the natural health community were learning how to best integrate probiotics and fermented foods into their diet for improved digestive health, a select group of scientists were busy cataloging the whole genetic code of gut microbiota. This research involves that mysterious internal world hosting about 50 trillion bacteria. In an effort to categorize micro-organics associated with human beings in both healthy and diseased states, researchers have begun the lofty task of sequencing microbial DNA. They have now moved from acknowledging microbial symbiosis to considering its purposes in the human body, and onward to mapping of the human microbiome. Their efforts have reaped a sizable reward.
A recent study published in Nature looked at the collective microbiotic environment involving 39 individuals from 6 different countries. These individuals, selected from a broad range of unique characteristics, offered up a seductive conclusion. All individuals fell within one of three unique enterotypes: (1) bacteroides; (2) prevotella; and (3) ruminococcus.
The potential is this: each enterotype-defining genre has been linked to nutrient processing preferences. Bacteroides have a preference for carbohydrates. Prevotella have an affinity for proteins. Ruminococcus prefer mucins and sugars.
These microbes are not just hanging out with little to do, but they have evolved along with human beings, providing important contributions in return for their use of the body as their home. Imbalances of bacteria have been linked to numerous diseases including cancer, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and obesity. According to Bill Wikoff, a Scripps Research Institute biophysicist, “If you want to use bacteria in an intelligent way, you really need to know what affect bacteria have on the biochemistry of the person.”
The study of these microbes is still in the infancy stage, but that should not detract from its extraordinary value for the picture of human health. What we have thus far, as well as what we could potentially learn, is quite extraordinary. These communities of bacteria, now classified together for the first time in one of only three groups, are just a tiny drop in an ocean of knowledge waiting to be discovered. Yet it moves us forward on what should be an exciting and illuminating journey.
It is hopeful that a comprehensive body of knowledge will soon be available to better understand the role of enterotypes on our health. This vast community of bacteria to whom our body plays the hoped-for genial host is at our service. Expanding our knowledge of their purpose will help us improve our overall health by improving the symbiotic relationship with our inner terrain.