Editor's note: Maria Fernandez-Guajardo is the vice president of product at Clear Labs where she leads product strategy, product delivery, and sales enablement. She has used her strength in emerging technologies, data analytics and passion for making an impact in pioneering food analytics with Clear Labs.
There is no such thing as the average patient, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to our health. Fortunately, we’ve reached a point in history when precision medicine – a groundbreaking approach to disease prevention and treatment based on people’s individual differences in environment, genes and lifestyle – is a reality.
The combination of genomics and increased analysis capabilities has given clinicians the tools they need to better understand the complex mechanisms underlying a patient’s condition, and to better predict which treatments will be most effective. Decreasing costs in DNA sequencing and increasing power in machine/deep learning keep these tools effective and affordable.
This is only the beginning, though. The potential of precision medicine remains largely untapped. What’s more, we’ve just begun to apply precision medicine’s unique toolset and approach to other vital industries.
Similar tools in DNA sequencing and computing are resulting in significant progress in the understanding of our bodies and, more specifically, the human microbiome.
We are now entering the world of precision nutrition, and it’s a promising new frontier.
I’ve spent much of my career trying to find specific applications for scientific research, and I’ve long been fascinated by the universe of microorganisms, mostly bacteria, that populate our bodies. These organisms are collectively referred to as the microbiota and their genes – the microbiome – have a substantial impact on our health.
The hundreds of trillions of bacteria living inside one person outnumbers the number of cells in his or her brain, bones, and muscles combined. Each person has a unique microbiome composition that frequently changes in response to external factors like diet, environment and health.
There are thousands of different species of bacteria and the scientific community doesn’t yet understand how a significant number of them work. Given all the uncertainty, how then is precision nutrition the next frontier?
Even with our limited understanding of the impact different bacteria have on our health, all signs are pointing to the microbiome being a major contributor, potentially having a bigger impact on our well-being than our DNA. Breakthrough discoveries continue to uncover the microbiome’s relationship to obesity, intestinal diseases, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease and even cancer.
With potential cures for some of our most pressing diseases and issues in sight, the stakes are high, but so is the payoff.
Optimizing for health
Researchers today are focused on two main areas: The composition and function of the different species of bacteria in our gut, and the optimization of the ideal microbiome that will keep us healthy.
It’s hard to believe people can positively influence the construction of microbiomes in such a transformative fashion, but researchers have already identified a few key ways to do so:
Studies show that the way we are born and whether we are breastfed or not both have a high impact on optimizing for the right kind of bacteria within.
Within the womb, our guts are sterile. The type and amount of bacteria that develop from that point on depends on many factors: the first bacteria “colonies” that arrive after birth, our exposure to harmful toxins or antibiotics, our genetics, and our interactions (or lack thereof) with other bacterial environments, like the tongue of the dog who loves to lick babies.
Babies born via cesarean section don’t pick up their mother’s microbes (and their benefits) because these microbes are found in the birth canal. These children develop very different gut colonies and their bacteria are linked to a significantly higher risk of a multitude of diseases like asthma, rheumatism, allergies, bowel disorders and more. Researchers studying the microbiome are hoping to uncover ways to fix that, helping restore important microbes from day one.
Breast milk not only provides antibodies and the perfect nutrients for a baby but also nurtures the presence of bifidobacteria, an important bacteria that makes for a stable and uniform gut microbiome that is correlated with healthier babies and adults later on. There is a reason six months of exclusive breastfeeding is recommended – the early months are critical to defining the immune response of the gut.
By introducing new, good bacteria we can maintain our gut’s ecosystem. Whether ingested as a supplement or naturally via foods like yogurt, kombucha and pickles, probiotics can help our bodies produce vitamins, absorb important nutrients and more.
Recent research has found that probiotics impact different people in different ways, depending on their unique microbiome profile. Live cultures in yogurt may improve a person’s gut health, but they may not. We’re not yet living in a world in which probiotic formulas can be developed to match specific human microbiome profiles. We’re getting there, though. In the next few years, people will regularly have their microbiomes sequenced in order to be able to shop for probiotics that match their specific health needs. Just as people are having their genome sequenced for their clinician to prescribe individualized treatments, the microbiome will be sequenced regularly in order to prescribe individualized diets.
The probiotics in our gut need food, too. Prebiotics are the “food” – generally fibers or starches – that feed the good bacteria within our system. They are naturally present in raw foods like garlic, onions and leeks, and including them in a regular diet is a large part of maintaining our microbiome.
As we know from healthcare, it’s hard to provide general health recommendations like “eat more leeks.” General recommendations aren’t motivating, and they’re difficult to adhere to because they don’t include specific measurements and don’t necessarily produce visible results.
As research in the microbiome advances, we can envision an a-la-carte prebiotic diet to assure that gut bacteria remains well fed and healthy. We’ll be able to formulate specific recommendations like how much garlic a person should be eating each week or whether he or she will get more health benefits out of onions or leeks.
The future in food
One of the most promising ways to optimize our microbiome is also the most exciting: identifying and integrating untapped resources in food.
Food doesn’t just provide nutrients for the microbiome, it actually has its own microbiome, which can be carried into the body for fruitful results. A simple tomato can have up to one billion surface bacteria. There’s early evidence that suggests that one good reason to switch to organic fruits and vegetables is because they are teeming with more probiotics than their conventional counterparts.
In the same way prebiotics nourish helpful probiotics, everything we eat feeds our microbiome in some way, good or bad. Researchers are fervently studying all types of bacteria to uncover the ones that bolster our systems and attack bad bacteria like salmonella.
Understanding the microbiome of our foods and how they work with our individual microbiomes is ultimately where we’re heading. We’re at least 5 to 7 years out, but it doesn’t hurt to add more raw veggies to your plate in the meantime.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the relationships between our food and its microbiome, our own body’s microbiome, and our health. Much more testing and research is needed, but the possibilities are enthralling.
By using the technological and research tools now available to better understand our food and its affect on our microbiomes, we can open the door to an entirely new world – a world where a precision approach to nutrition is tailored towards individual environment, lifestyle, genes and even microbiomes. A world where even minor tweaks to our diet have major effects on our overall health and well being.