There’s a simple genius to Dr. Deanna Gibson’s research: What we eat – or, more precisely, what we excrete – is who we are. In plain language, poop can tell us some very significant things about what’s going on in our bodies.
Gibson is head of the Microbiome and Inflammatory Disease Research lab on UBC’s Okanagan campus. Along with her husband, Sanjoy Ghosh, she leads a team of investigators who focus on the gut, its health, its contents, and its end products. This work may lead to new therapies for chronic inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, colitis and Crohn’s disease.
The results of her research are both shocking and fascinating, and go against popular conceptions of nutrition that have dominated our understanding of what’s good for us and what isn’t for most of the last hundred years.
Gibson’s interest in the gut (and the route she took to become known as The Poop Lady) began at an early age. “Members of my family have been subject to gastrointestinal issues for as long as I can remember,” she says. It’s what sparked her interest in microbiology and started her on her current path.
Gibson’s initial research focused on examining fecal matter from human infants. She and her team collected diaper samples from babies all over Kelowna (thus the “Poop Lady” appellation. “Even my kids call me the Poop Lady,” she says with a laugh), to find out what species of microbes exist in a person’s gut (there are hundreds), with a goal to learning what impact these microbes have on digestion, the development of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases, and the overall health of the individual.
One of the first successes of her research came with development of a standardized procedure for storing stool samples. She found that simply storing samples in the freezer resulted in inconsistent results – the process itself affected the microbes – and that the microbes appearing in one part of a sample may be different from those that appear in another. Her team developed a process she calls “homogenization,” where each sample is mixed and suspended in liquid nitrogen, ensuring no microbial changes can take place between diaper and microscope.
The primary goal of her research was to show how the diet of the mother had an impact not only on the fetus, but on the long-term health of the child. In experiments with rodents, Gibson learned that a “bad” diet in the mother resulted in the later development of GI diseases such as colitis and diabetes in the offspring, while mothers with a “good” diet tended to produce offspring with better health outcomes later in life.
“No one expected a child’s long-term health to be so directly impacted by the mother’s diet during pregnancy. It was an amazing result.” To the scientific community, it seemed to go against accepted nutritional dogma.
“It works in the rodent model,” she says, “because we can change the conditions to test certain ideas, and the life spans are quite short. But it seems clear that the same results will happen in human babies.” As well, a mother’s diet is reflected in the immune cells and microbes expressed in her breast milk, and these have a direct impact on her offspring’s immunity and gut microbes.
“No one expected a child’s long-term health to be so directly impacted by the mother’s diet during pregnancy,” she says. “It was an amazing result.” To the scientific community, it seemed to go against accepted nutritional dogma.
In fact, according to Gibson, nutritional research is often considered to be on the flakey side of science, partly because of bizarre claims made by some less-than-scientific researchers, and partly because, as we learn more, old sureties are replaced by better evidence. In 2011, Gibson won a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Gates Foundation to investigate the relationship between a mother’s diet and a child’s long-term health, a line of research characterized in media reports as “weird,” and “science fiction.” That attitude, along with a long history of quackery – magic elixirs, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, celebrity diets and various other forms of snake oil – makes for a Doubting Thomas atmosphere in the nutritional field.
Though Gibson and her team continue to delve into the relationship between mothers’ guts and offsprings’ poop, her current research runs right at the heart of eyebrow-lifting nutritional research, and threatens to turn the field – and your diet – on its head. It’s all about fat, and no topic in the nutritional canon is more rife with suspicion, second guessing and sleight-of-hand than the function of fat in the human diet.
Good Fat/Bad Fat
Fat has been the bad guy in dietary circles for decades, particularly saturated fat, such as that found in meat, butter and tropical oils. “We tend to vilify all fats,” Gibson says, “especially saturated fats. But our research shows that some of these fats are protective in some serious GI diseases.”
Our modern nutritional best-thinking says saturated fat is just this side of poison. Many studies dispute this claim, but whole industries have grown up that cash in on this idea. Sanjoy Ghosh, assistant professor in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences at UBCO, is poster boy for how long it can take to refute bad science. In 2004 as a PhD student at UBC, he undertook research to prove how saturated fats contribute to some of the more devastating aspects of diabetes. But his research proved the opposite: saturated fats actually provided some protection against these developments.
In his attempts to get his research published he was ridiculed and his work considered suspect, but he persevered. Ultimately, his work won him an international research award, and started him on his path to wider research into fat and how it metabolizes in the body. Now, working with Gibson, he and the team have made some ground-breaking discoveries about how the gut interacts with the fats we consume.
Their study, which examined how the type of fat consumed had a direct impact on infections in mice, was published by the Journal of Infectious Diseases in the UK. The study showed how mice fed fatty acids found in olive oil and milk fat, which is rich in saturated fat, were better able to fight diseases than mice fed fats rich in polyunsaturated fats such as those found in corn oil.
But fats are extremely complicated. They are essential for good health – many vitamins and minerals are unavailable to the body without fats to metabolize them – and vital in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. But their function in the gut goes beyond nutrient metabolism. They are responsible for maintaining microbial balance, regulating inflammation and discouraging bad bacteria. The roles of the various kinds of fat are only now being understood.
Fats found in vegetative matter (called Omega 6 fats which also occur in poultry, eggs and grains) have, historically, made up a relatively small part of the human diet. However, fats processed from vegetative sources and made into edible oils have been a part of the human diet for less than one hundred years. These oils, including corn, canola, and sunflower, make up the vast majority of oils used in processed food and in cooking oils at home. Researchers are only now understanding their negative effects.
No topic in the nutritional canon is more rife with suspicion, second guessing and sleight-of-hand than the function of fat in the human diet.
Omega 3 fats (found in fish oils, nuts and some grains) have been touted as “good” fats, and, as a result, have been added as supplements to many foods, including infant formula. Omega 3 supplements are claimed to improve brain function, vitamin A absorption (resulting in better eyesight) and general heart health, while Omega 6 oils are promoted as good for heart health and its positive impact on diabetes. Saturated fats are just bad.
All suspect, says Gibson. Her metadata shows that Omega 3 supplements have no impact on fetal health, brain function or vision development and suspicions that Omega 6 fats play a role in the development of diabetes are now coming to light. Even scarier, Gibson is now investigating data that shows Omega 3 supplements are actually detrimental to a baby’s health, because they encourage the development of a harmful microbiome.
The problem is, according to Gibson, inflammation in the gut. While some inflammation is essential for good health – to kill bad bacteria and counter some infections – too much inflammation has been associated with a host of diseases such as diabetes, GI disease and even cancer. Omega 6 fats encourage inflammation of gut bacteria, while Omega 3 fats discourage it. Our North American diet loads up on Omega 6 fats, with a much smaller portion of Omega 3, while saturated fats are discouraged. This combination is a recipe for dietary disaster because the presence of all that Omega 6 fat in the gut produces a constant state of inflammation.
Ironically, supplementing one’s diet with Omega 3 fats, such as with fish oil pills or in baby formula, just causes more problems. Too little inflammation in the gut encourages the development of bad bacteria and infection in other parts of the body.
The team’s research now points to saturated fats as being a possible solution to the imbalance in our gut created by a surfeit of Omega 6 fat. “Saturated fat also causes inflammation in the gut,” she says, “but we’re discovering that it has all sorts of other, positive effects.” It encourages the production and health of the gut’s microbiome, and helps to mitigate the effects of inflammation. It also doesn’t have the negative effects that some previous, erroneous research said it did have.
What’s a person to do with all this seemingly contradictory information? Balance, says Gibson.
“Saturated fats aren’t toxic,” she says. “They actually have the ability to promote healing. My recommendation of the ideal diet for those with, and without, IBD is to have a good balance, including olive oils, some saturated fats, and a little fish oil – but from fish in the diet, not supplements.” We should, she suggests, start cooking with butter again, drinking whole milk and eating cheese. In moderation, of course. And if the Doubting Thomases need more proof of the validity of this advice, they’ll find it in the diaper contents of the next generation.
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