In the coming weeks, most of us will consume a lot of chocolate, wine and cheese, which have been made kind to us by bacteria and fungi. These tiny microbes do the hard work of converting raw ingredients into the foods we enjoy so much.
In addition to providing us with delicious food, microbes—particularly the vast army of those that live in our guts—also produce chemicals known as postbiotics that improve our health in all sorts of ways.
Regular readers will know all about probiotics, the live microbes found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and some cheeses: they contain “good” bacteria that boost our colony of gut microbes (the microbiome).
You probably also recognize the term prebiotics – foods such as legumes, whole grains and some vegetables, which are rich in fiber and feed our good gut bacteria.
But postbiotics may be new to you.
Make sure the meal has enough fiber to give them something to chew: lots of veggies (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?)
These are the chemicals that produce the good microbes and are a very popular area of research. They’re thought to be key to why our gut microbes are linked to a range of benefits, such as a better-functioning immune system, a reduced risk of allergies, and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
One of the postbiotics that is proving to be particularly interesting is butyrate. A type of short-chain fatty acid, it helps maintain the intestinal lining, the barrier that prevents bacteria and other toxins from escaping into your blood. If this lining starts to break down, a condition known as leaky gut syndrome can develop, which can lead to all sorts of distressing problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. And if fragments of partially digested food leak out of the gut, it can cause allergic reactions.
Butyrate also helps regulate your immune system and reduce chronic inflammation (linked to a host of conditions, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer). And one of the best ways to boost your butyrate levels is to eat foods rich in inulin, a prebiotic found in onions, leeks, garlic, bananas and artichokes.
A recent study from King’s College London found that eating a handful of almonds can also significantly increase butyrate levels, even in people with otherwise unhealthy diets.
But what about taking butyrate supplements? There is some evidence that this may be effective. In a trial conducted in 2012 at the Poznan University of Medical Sciences in Poland, 66 adults with IBS were given either butyrate supplements or a placebo. After four weeks, those given the butyrate reported much less pain and bloating.
In another study, from the University of Pavia in Italy, nine of 13 IBS patients given butyrate reported improved symptoms.
One problem with supplements is that they often taste awful (due to butyrate’s chemical structure). More importantly, much of the butyrate is broken down long before it can reach the gut, diminishing its benefits. However, a team at the University of Chicago has developed a way to package it so that not only does it taste better, but more of it gets where it’s needed.
They reported that when mice bred to be allergic to peanuts were given the new supplement, it increased intestinal levels of butyrate and prevented a life-threatening reaction when given peanuts.
Unfortunately, not all postbiotics are good for us, or not in the large quantities that are sometimes produced.
Another short-chain fatty acid called propionate also helps support your gut lining. But a 2021 review from the University of South Florida concluded that high levels of it are neurotoxic and “may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.”
They warned that as we age, our guts harbor more bacteria that are the main producers of propionate.
In addition to helping identify new compounds produced by gut bacteria, studying postbiotics has helped explain why some people benefit from eating certain foods, and others don’t. For example, we know that eating soy-based foods can relieve menopausal symptoms. But it doesn’t help everyone, because many women lack the gut microbes that convert soy into a chemical called equol.
In a study published in the journal Menopause in 2015, researchers at the University of Washington tested the urine of 357 women with severe menopausal symptoms who regularly ate soy for the presence of equol.
Those who ate a lot of soy and whose microbes produced a lot of equol experienced much less hot flashes and night sweats. But only a third of the women had the right microbes to produce equol.
Do supplements help? In a recent study from Japan, 81 percent of women who supplemented with equol experienced significant improvements.
So this year, as you eat your Christmas fare, think about those hard-working microbes that not only helped produce some of that food, but will be busy converting what you eat into chemicals to keep you healthy. to keep.
Make sure the meal has enough fiber to give them something to chew: lots of veggies (more Brussels sprouts, anyone?), nuts, devils on horseback (plums!), hearty soups, some dark chocolate (cocoa is 30 percent fiber) and maybe some probiotic aged cheese.
Friendship advice for male introverts like me
Soon I’ll be sitting down to write a stack of Christmas cards, many of which will include something along the lines of “sorry I haven’t seen you this year, but let’s meet in 2023.”
Unfortunately, I’m bad at maintaining my male friendships. My only consolation is that I’m not alone: In a 2019 YouGov survey, nearly one in five men said they didn’t have close friends (compared to just one in ten women).
Studies suggest that one of the reasons men are so bad at keeping up with friends is that they seriously underestimate how much they’d like to hear from them and overestimate the embarrassment of reaching out. If you’re someone like me, a bit introverted, there are a few things you can try.
I’ll be sitting down to write a stack of Christmas cards soon, and many will include something along the lines of ‘sorry I haven’t seen you this year, but let’s meet 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 a little male bonding.
You can also send a text, email or note to an old friend. Don’t be shy: research shows that most people like to be contacted. In a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, people were asked to send a short message to someone in their social circle they hadn’t seen recently, while the recipients were asked how much they appreciated the gesture. It turned out that the senders of the letter vastly underestimated how much it was appreciated, especially by those who had been out of touch for the longest time.
I recently contacted an old friend I hadn’t seen for over a year to invite him to a carol service at New College, Oxford, where we were both students. Unfortunately he couldn’t be there, but it was lovely to catch up and I’m optimistic that we will actually meet in 2023.
How to stop time from flying by
If time seems to speed up as you get older, Adrian Bejan, a mechanical engineering professor at Duke University in the US, has an explanation. He says that as we age, electrical signals take longer to travel through our brains, slowing down the rate at which we process new mental images. Days seemed longer when we were younger because our youthful minds could take in more images. But you can extend time with new experiences. So when life goes by too fast, try to learn new things.
Did you sleep less than usual this week? Blame it on the December 8 full moon, known as a cold moon (for obvious reasons). A 2013 study from the University of Basel in Switzerland found that we sleep 20 minutes less during the full moon (with lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin).
The next full moon, on January 17, is known as the Wolf Moon, after the howls of hungry wolves desperate for some food.