Henrik Ennart

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Families and Dogs Share Microbiota

Our dog Lovis doesn’t like it when I’m writing. I totally get it, it’s much more fun when we play together. They say dogs are our best friends, and now, scientists suggest they have similar intestinal flora to humans. They are actually more similar than we would like to believe, especially thinking about all the things Lovis would chew on if given the chance.

Researchers in Heidelberg have studied Labrador Retrievers and Beagles and they found that, just like in humans, their daily diet have a significant influence on the balance of microbes in the gut. In that respect, humans and dogs are much more similar than humans and mice, and yet we use mice for experiments all the time. However, I don’t want scientists to perform lots of laboratory tests on dogs…

Among other findings, they observed that dogs fed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet had decreases in the ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes bacteria – just like in humans. If the dog was overweight, it would also lose weight. Also, dogs that ate a high-carbohydrate diet had instead higher abundances of Bacteroidetes. The researchers hope to see the research translate into real-world ways to modify pet food.

There are a lot of theories about this. Researchers say that simply owning a dog can have an effect on overall microbe-sharing. People share microbes on the surfaces they touch, and therefore, family members who live in the same household tend to have more similar gut flora if they have a dog. Also, married couples share more microbes with one another if they have a dog. Interpret that as you will.

Ok, dogs can be pretty dirty, especially after playing around outside. And, they spread the dirt to their surroundings as soon as they come indoors. But remember, this is actually beneficial to your health, and even more, to the health of your children as they crawl around on the floor. Children who grow up around animals are less likely to get allergies, especially if there was already a dog in the family when they were born, or even better, before they were born.

Some scientists suggest that dogs have played a key role in every stage of human development.

The earliest strong evidence for domestication, dating back 14 700 years, is the remains of a dog found buried with its owner. However, some findings suggest that there was a strong connection between humans and dogs more than 40 000 years ago – long before the agricultural revolution and the domestication of other animals.

A theory suggests that early humans and their dogs drove Neanderthals to extinction. Mainly because of the fact that the dogs helped our ancestors hunt more efficiently, and that they could be used as guard dogs.

Well, I’m not sure Lovis would be much use as a guard dog, or what would happen if she ran into a mammoth. But ok Lovis, I’ll stop writing now. Our joint gut feeling tells us it’s time for a walk.

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Henrik Ennart

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Thumbs Up For Physical Activity, But Don’t Forget to Keep Your Gut Happy

Spring is finally here, and it’s time for your first sunny morning run in the park. Physical activity is absolutely great for your overall health, but is it also good for the intestinal flora? Some say it is, but I wouldn’t be so sure about it.

There is a common misconception that you can eat whatever you want as long as you exercise. In fact, this statement is only backed up by a few studies. The most famous one is an Irish study in which scientists studied professional athletes from an international rugby union squad. The results provided evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity.

Case closed? Nope. The rugby players didn’t just exercise more than the participants in the control group, they were also eating a more varied and balanced diet. What if it’s all about the food? If you exercise a lot, your will probably eat more and thereby provide the gut bacteria with more fibers. However, this doesn’t always happen. Just because you exercise, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you eat well.

And as always, the results are affected by what the scientists are looking for. Other studies show that both mental and physical stress can have harmful effects on your gut flora. Let’s have a look at this Norwegian study in which scientists looked at soldiers during a 4-day cross-country ski-march. The study showed an association between the stressful military training environment and increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut.

Blood and stool samples were collected before and after the ski-march to measure inflammation and stool microbiota. The results showed an increased amount of potentially harmful bacteria in stool from participants who had experienced a lot of mental and physical stress. There were also less of the good bacteria, the ones that normally fight inflammation and help strengthen the immune system. To avoid these problems, the findings suggest that the soldiers eat high-fiber foods prior to stressful activities.

Animal research has provided evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity. That’s usually considered a good thing. But if you look closely, the results are often similar to the ones in the Norwegian study. They often show an increased amount of potentially harmful bacteria, and less of the good ones.

Sounds complicated? It gets worse. A recent study suggest that if you’re skinny, endurance exercise is good for the intestinal flora. But if you’re overweight, the same kind of exercise may have negative effects. Simply put, people with happy guts and well-balanced intestinal bacteria will get the best results from their workouts.

This study has been all over the Internet lately, often treated as evidence when it comes to the supposed benefits of exercise. But the scientists had their eyes set on increased production of butyric acid (butyrate is good for gut health) – and did not look for potential inflammation caused by the heavy exercise.

And remember, the results may have been affected by whatever the participants were eating at the time. As said before, high-intensity workouts will probably make you hungrier. Most of the time, the participants were free to eat whatever they wanted. And if you look closely, you will see that their diets consisted of lots of insoluble fiber. Yup, that’s right. Great foods for the butyrate producing colon bacteria.

Time for the conclusion. Simply put, exercise is not necessarily the key to a well-balanced gut flora, at least not on its own. Exercise can alter the composition of your gut microbiome, but we’re not completely sure if it’s always for the better. Further research is definitely needed.

Leading a healthy lifestyle is a complex task, and there are many factors contributing to overall health. Exercise is a key factor, but don’t forget about diet, friends, sense of meaningfulness, healthy amounts of stress, a good night’s sleep, fresh air, clean water, self-esteem, and the list goes on. Every single one of these things will affect your intestinal flora. But all-in-all, what seems to be the most important factor? That’s right, you guessed it: diet. In fact, a few simple changes can completely transform your health.

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. But don’t forget to keep your gut happy.

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Henrik Ennart, Recipes

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Happy Super Salad with Beans, Grains, Jerusalem Artichoke and Apple

When Henrik Ennart sent us his latest column about chronic fatigue syndrome, he attached this recipe from the book Happy Food, written by Henrik and the chef Niklas Ekstedt. Different types of intestinal bacteria prefer different foods, and therefore, it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods. This salad contains all sorts of fiber and will make all dinner guests (and their gut bacteria) happy.

Happy Super Salad with Beans, Grains, Jerusalem Artichoke and Apple
4 servings

0.5 cup black beans, cooked
0.5 cup whole grains, cooked
6-10 Jerusalem artichokes
1 apple
a handful fresh thyme
8-12 mushrooms
0.5 cup roasted hazelnuts
2 tbsp dried cranberries
0.5 cup fava beans
5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (or 180 degrees Celsius). Wash and cut the artichokes lengthwise. Cut the mushroom into wedges. Put Jerusalem artichokes and mushrooms in a roasting pan, and add thyme, some of the olive oil and salt. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the artichokes are almost tender. Cut the apple into wedges and add to the same roasting pan. Continue to roast for about 10 minutes. Mix beans and grains with vinegar and the rest of the olive oil, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with the roasted vegetables, hazelnuts and dried cranberries.

Recipe: Niklas Ekstedt, from the book Happy Food.

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Henrik Ennart

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New Research on the Disease ME/CFS

Over the last few months, I’ve been busy doing two things. One of them is talking about the book Happy Food, written by Niklas Ekstedt and me. It’s about the connection between the brain and the intestinal flora. The second thing that comes to mind is a couple of articles about CFS/ME, generally and often mistakenly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, that I’ve written for the Swedish newspaper SvD.

The emails have been pouring in. And I have been deeply touched by the stories people have generously shared with me.

Like so many of us, I know people who have experienced exhaustion and burnout. For most people, things get better. But if they’re struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, that’s rarely the case. I have read what sometimes seemed like endless stories of suffering. Friends and family of those who suffer describe it as a debilitating disorder characterized by extreme, lifelong, painful and paralyzing fatigue. It doesn’t go away with rest, but stays forever, decade after decade. It doesn’t kill you, but it will take your life away.

Also, our national healthcare systems don’t always support people who have ME. The illness is often misunderstood and might not be taken seriously by healthcare providers. According to the CDC, more than one million Americans have ME. At least one-quarter of them are bed bound or housebound at some point in the illness, and most never regain their pre-disease level of functioning.

I’ve talked to numerous people who suffer from ME, and they are no longer able to live their lives in the way they did before. For many of them, it’s been like that for 20 or 30 years. Almost all of them used to live healthy and active lives until, all of a sudden, they got symptoms similar to those of flu or an infection. And then they never recovered, it never stops. Literally, IT NEVER STOPS. Gradually, more and more symptoms are added: fever, shivers, headache, abdominal pains, dizziness, cramps, and increased risk of allergic reactions.

Also, the illness is often misunderstood and mistaken for stress-related exhaustion disorder. Unfortunately, what will help people with stress-related exhaustion, like exercise, will worsen the symptoms for someone with ME.

So, how is this related to food? A couple of months ago, I visited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, close to Washington DC. NIH is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers and an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They’ve finally decided to closely examine the clinical and biological characteristics of the disorder and improve our understanding of its cause and progression.

Vicky Whittemore and Joseph Breen, program directors for the NIH’s ME study, believe that the disease is not psychosomatic, but a chronic autoimmune multi-systemic disease, that is physiological in nature. According to NIH, the illness may also be related to the so-called Gulf war syndrome. The causes aren’t well-understood, but some theories include viral infection, stress-related immune changes, or a combination of factors.

This is where the food comes in. Over the last few years, scientists have grasped how critical a rich and thriving intestinal flora is to our health. And why shouldn’t it? The bacteria in our intestine help extract nutrients from the food we eat, and at the same time, our intestine is a total pro at protecting itself against bacterial and viral invaders.

To protect ourselves, we have to be on good terms with the bacteria in our colon. They can’t live without us, and we can’t live without them. When we’re healthy, and the good bacteria exist in an environment in which they thrive, we form a dynamic ecosystem together that will easily mow down every enemy in its path.

Problem is, the diet most of us subside on today is more likely to strengthen the bad bacteria than the good, and our good bacteria die out when we fail to take care of them. Compared to some indigenous populations, westerners have decimated large sections of our gastrointestinal flora. And, as we all know, if too many species go extinct, entire ecosystems will disappear.  

In line with this, NIH will study the connection between the intestinal flora and ME, and some interesting findings have already been made.

Scientists know that more or less all chronic diseases can be associated with an imbalanced gut flora. And unfortunately, autoimmune diseases in general are increasing. Some are well-known, like MS, rheumatism, and fibromyalgia. However, some symptoms are difficult to diagnose, and many sufferers are still approached with suspicion.

We need to start talking about autoimmune diseases, on top of all the other problems related to junk food, like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is no coincidence that many of these diseases are also associated with gastrointestinal disorders like IBS or IBD, and celiac disease.

In the future, scientists hope to be able to repair damaged intestinal flora by adding bacteria to the digestive tract. Until then, don’t forget to strengthen the good bacteria in your colon by eating a wide variety of foods.

Science journalist and writer Henrik Ennart is the author of the book Happy Food. Now and then, he writes here at Food Pharmacy.