It’s no secret that modern Western diets aren’t ideal, but exactly how diets high in processed foods can impact our bodies is a complex subject.
Take, for example, the microbiome diversity in your gut – beneficial bacteria that live in your stomach and intestines and facilitate digestion and other bodily functions.
It only makes sense that the foods we eat would affect the delicate balance of flora that thrive in our guts, but recent research is only starting to help us understand exactly how that balance is affected by processed foods and what the potential consequences of those effects are.
The Impact Of Diet
While the gut microbiome is resilient, studies show that long-term negative trends in ones diet can have a significant impact on microbe diversity in our guts(1). Researchers believe that understanding the dynamics of how the gut microbiome reacts to long-term dietary trends may help with the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases.
While many researchers are still working on developing this understanding, it’s clear that countries where processed foods are more prevalent tend to have higher rates of diseases which are associated with a decreased level of gut microbiome diversity – whereas in regions where individuals live subsistence lifestyles and consume very little processed food, gut microbiome diversity is much greater(2).
Other factors play into this as well over the course of an individuals lifetime – including breastfeeding and the use of antibiotics(3).
A “New Frontier” In Autism Research
While researchers are still struggling to understand the links between gut microbiome diversity and Autism spectrum disorders (or ASD), many are convinced that a link is there. A groundbreaking study found that gut microbes could be linked to Autism spectrum disorder symptoms in mice: compositional and structural shifts of microbes could trigger ASD symptoms – but those symptoms were relieved with the use of specific probiotics(4).
The study left researchers hopeful that probiotics might provide therapeutic treatment strategies for those with Autism spectrum disorders and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
In a 2014 paper, researchers called the connection between gut microbiomes and Autism spectrum disorders “a new frontier in Autism research”.(5)
Taking Care Of Your Gut Microbiome
Probiotics and natural, unprocessed foods are a good way to go if you want to promote healthy diversity among the microbes that live in your gut.
There’s lots of reasons to want to maintain a healthy level of gut microbiome diversity, even beyond the Autism connection. Recent studies have shown that gut microbiota have a significant role to play in the management and treatment of chronic gastrointestinal disease(6), and can even affect your metabolism(7).
While we may have a ways to go before we completely understand how these complex organisms work, it’s clear that they have a significant role to play in our overall health.