7 Microbiome Discoveries That Will Change How You "Do Health" In 2023
Every year brings new discoveries in microbiome science. And the more we learn, the more we understand the powerful opportunity we have to shape our microbiome, and in turn, our health. Here, we share seven important findings from the past year and what they mean for you.
In the last two decades, scientific exploration into the microbiome has skyrocketed, with over $1.7 billion spent on human microbiome research since 2009.1 Advancements in sequencing technology empowered discoveries that elucidate the microbiome’s critical role in health and disease, charted the development of the infant microbiome, and have even begun to define how our behavior can shape our microbiome and, in turn, our health throughout life.
In 2022 alone, more than 25,000 papers pertaining to the microbiome were published. Here, we share seven important (and mind-blowing) advancements from the last year and how you can use these insights to “do health” in 2023 and beyond.
New to the world of the gut microbiome? Explore our Microbiome 101, which will introduce you to the 38 trillion bacteria living in and on your body, and why they’re integral to your health.
1. The key to achieving your fitness goals could lie in your gut microbiome.2
Is “exercise more” on your resolutions list this year? Your microbiome may help keep you motivated. In this study, researchers assessed what factors were responsible for some mice exercising more than others. After collecting over 10,000 data points, they determined that microbiome composition was the primary factor in the mice’s motivation to exercise. To confirm their hypothesis, they administered antibiotics to disturb the mice’s gut bacteria and found that the distance these mice ran dropped by half. After recovery from the antibiotics, the mice returned to their previous performance levels.
So how do microbes actually impact exercise motivation? Compounds secreted by microbes in the gut stimulate the activity of certain neurons, elevating dopamine (a neurotransmitter involved in reward and motivation) levels in the brain during exercise. This means gut microbes could influence how much fulfillment someone gets from exercising, and may help explain why certain people are more motivated to exercise than others.
What you can do:
While nurturing your gut microbiome isn’t a substitute for exercise, it might increase motivation to stick to your fitness routine. A few simple ways to support your microbes: consume a diverse range of plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds); spend time in nature; get adequate sleep; adopt a houseplant or pet; and limit inputs that disrupt the microbiome like NSAIDs, alcohol, antibiotics, excess sugar, and tobacco smoke.
2. Microplastics are harming your gut (and whole-body) health.3
Plastic accumulation has become a major concern for both human and planetary health. Many plastic products persist in the environment for hundreds of years, eventually breaking down into microscopic plastic particles—or microplastics. Every day, you’re exposed to microplastics. They can make their way into your digestive tract through food, water, products you use, and even the air you breathe.
In this review, the authors estimate you could be consuming between 0.1–5.0 grams of plastic per week (that’s like ingesting a credit card every seven days!). Although more research is needed on the long-term biological consequences of these plastic particles, we know they burden the gut microbiomes (of humans and animals) through multiple mechanisms. They can promote dysbiosis (an imbalance in your gut microbiome), lead to loss of resilience, damage the gut barrier, cause inflammation, and negatively affect the metabolism of both your gut microbes and human cells in ways that may cause and/or progress disease.
To prevent the accumulation of microplastics in the environment and our own bodies, we need large institutions (like corporations and government) to spearhead scalable solutions for waste management, as well as more sustainable alternatives to plastic.
What you can do:
On an individual level, here are some suggestions to lower your exposure and do your part to reduce plastic flow into the environment:
- Decrease your personal use of plastic—think: single-use food packaging, cosmetics with microbeads (like exfoliating face washes and soap scrubs), and clothing made with synthetic materials (like polyester, acrylic, and nylon).
- Use a non-plastic, refillable water bottle. Plastic water bottles expose you to 22.5x as many plastic particles compared to drinking tap water.3
- If you do use plastic water bottles or Tupperware, avoid heat (including sun exposure and microwaves) as it can accelerate plastic degradation into microplastic particles.
- Opt for loose-leaf tea instead of tea bags. Nearly all tea bags contain plastic fibers that disintegrate while they are steeping in hot water. It’s estimated that a single tea bag can release as many as 11.6 billion microplastic particles.4
- Be mindful of your salt intake. One study found microplastics in 17 brands of salt from eight different countries.5 The salts were sourced from both the sea and lakes, with sea salt having the highest concentration. So, when possible, choose land-based salts such as pink Himalayan salt.
3. Your gut microbiome may be driving your sweet tooth.6
While it might feel like your food cravings are informed by your mood or how much you exercise, there’s another player involved: your microbes. Research is continuing to unpack how your microbiome dictates eating behavior via the gut-brain axis (or the bidirectional pathway between the gut and the brain)—and recent findings uncover a potential explanation for overeating of high-sugar and high-fat foods.
A study from Dr. Sarkis Mazmanian, Seed Scientific Board Member and our Gut-Brain Research Program partner, examined the eating behavior of mice whose microbiomes were disrupted after a four-week course of antibiotics. Compared to mice with “healthy” gut microbiota, the mice with disrupted gut microbiomes ate 50% more high-sugar pellets and ate in longer bursts. When researchers restored the disrupted microbiomes with fecal transplants, their feeding patterns returned to normal and they no longer exhibited the same overeating behavior. This means that specific microbes may suppress binge-eating behavior, while their absence could drive overeating.
What you can do:
While more research is needed (especially in humans) to better understand the role of the gut microbiome in regulating eating behavior, nurturing your resident microbes (see #1 above) may help if you struggle with sugar cravings and overeating.
4. Your microbiome is almost entirely shaped by how you live.7
In one of the largest studies to date, scientists in the Netherlands analyzed the gut microbiomes of over 8,000 Dutch participants, from 2,700 families over three generations, to uncover environmental and inheritable factors that explain what shaped the participants’ microbiomes. So what did the researchers find?
They discovered only ~7% of our microbiome can be explained by inheritance. This means it is almost entirely shaped by external factors like our environment and lifestyle. Interestingly, ~50% of the microbes we harbor are influenced by cohabitation (who we live and have contact with, including pets). In addition to cohabitation, air pollution and medications were highlighted as top influencers of our microbial makeup.
Researchers also identified “disease-like microbiome signatures” (microbiome composition that is correlated with certain conditions) in some participants who didn’t actually have the diseases. This implies that changes may occur in the gut microbiome before a disease shows up clinically. In the future, healthcare practitioners may use these microbial biomarkers to decide when to intervene proactively for our health.
What you can do:
We know the microbiome rapidly develops within the first few years of life as we begin to develop a steady-state microbiome (a microbiome resembling that of an adult) starting around age three. These research findings remind us that even after this initial development window, our microbiome remains a “work in progress.” We are not just a product of our genetics or our early exposures—we have agency in our health journey by nurturing and considering our microbiome at each stage of life.
5. You may want to reconsider common sugar alternatives.8
Sugar replacements are commonly marketed as healthier alternatives and often regarded as inert (having no effect on health). This research suggests otherwise. In this two-week randomized, controlled trial, healthy participants were given saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, and stevia (common sugar alternatives) in doses lower than the “acceptable daily intake.” Both saccharin and sucralose changed the gut microbiome composition of participants and all sugar alternatives altered the microbiomes’ functioning. Furthermore, these microbiome alterations were found to impact glucose metabolism and blood sugar levels, which could lead to complications like unintentional weight gain and diabetes.
What you can do:
If you frequently opt for zero-calorie sweeteners (especially saccharin or sucralose), it might be time to consider lowering your intake levels. And be sure to look closely at your labels—these sugar alternatives can be found in products that may surprise you such as lipsticks and toothpaste.
6. Feeding your microbes a psychobiotic diet can lower stress.9
In October 2022, 76% of American adults said they had experienced health impacts in the prior month due to stress.10 So what if your microbes could help you manage stress? This research suggests that when fed the right diet, they might be able to. In the study, participants consumed a “psychobiotic diet”—a diet high in prebiotic and fermented foods that are known to support the microbiome. After four weeks on the diet, participants reported less perceived stress. What’s driving this change? Researchers observed subtle changes in composition and function of participants’ microbiomes, meaning diet-induced microbial shifts could influence gut-brain communication to positively impact stress levels.
What you can do:
As we explore ways to reduce and manage stress, this research presents an exciting avenue for intervention. If you’re interested in experimenting with a “psychobiotic diet”, the daily diet used in this study consisted of:
- 5–8 daily servings of whole grains like oats and quinoa
- 6–8 daily servings of fruits and vegetables high in prebiotic fibers like onions, leeks, cabbage, apples, and bananas
- 2–3 daily servings of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and kombucha
- 3–4 weekly servings of legumes like chickpeas and lentils
- No sweets, fast food, or sugary drinks
7. Probiotics may help prevent some of the negative effects of antibiotic use.11
Antibiotics work by either inhibiting the growth and replication of bacteria or destroying them altogether. The problem is, many antibiotic drugs aren’t specific enough to only harm “bad” (pathogenic) bacteria, so commonly prescribed antibiotics can also wipe out beneficial microbes, which disrupts the delicate balance of the gut microbiome. This can induce a range of unpleasant short and long-term effects. Think symptoms like diarrhea and stomach discomfort to chronic conditions like allergies and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).
Despite some of these negative consequences, antibiotics are an incredibly important advancement in modern medicine, responsible for saving countless lives. So when antibiotics are unavoidable, what can we do to bolster our health?* One extensive review of recent research found that taking certain probiotics at the same time as antibiotics prevents some (but not all) of the gut microbial diversity and composition changes caused by antibiotics, and also may help restore beneficial bacteria. The prescribed probiotics in the studies reviewed belonged to the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces species. Since this was a review of research (rather than a new study), the methods used across the studies reviewed varied considerably. For example, the concentration of c.f.u. (colony forming units) and the timeline of intervention varied (ranging from five days to four weeks, but most took probiotics for two weeks while taking antibiotics). *Stay tuned for more Seed research on this topic.
What you can do:
While there isn’t a clearly defined protocol (yet), taking a probiotic alongside or after antibiotic use could be beneficial to help your body and your microbes recover.
The more we learn about the microbiome, the more we understand that without it, we do not have the full picture. New discoveries like the ones shared here reveal a deeper understanding of ourselves: the whats, whys, and hows that may explain everything from our underlying exercise motivation to the tendency to overeat. This research also inspires us to take daily micro actions to make a macro impact on our health.
- Proctor, L. (2019). Priorities for the next 10 years of human microbiome research. Nature, 569(7758), 623–625. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-01654-0
- Dohnalová, L., Lundgren, P., Carty, J. R., Goldstein, N., Wenski, S. L., Nanudorn, P., Thiengmag, S., Huang, K.-P., Litichevskiy, L., Descamps, H. C., Chellappa, K., Glassman, A., Kessler, S., Kim, J., Cox, T. O., Dmitrieva-Posocco, O., Wong, A. C., Allman, E. L., Ghosh, S., … Thaiss, C. A. (2022). A microbiome-dependent gut–brain pathway regulates motivation for exercise. Nature, 612(7941), 739–747. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05525-z
- Jiménez-Arroyo, C., Tamargo, A., Molinero, N., & Moreno-Arribas, M. V. (2022). The gut microbiota, a key to understanding the health implications of micro(nano)plastics and their biodegradation. Microbial Biotechnology, 16(1), 34–53. https://doi.org/10.1111/1751-7915.14182
- Hernandez, L. M., Xu, E. G., Larsson, H. C. E., Tahara, R., Maisuria, V. B., & Tufenkji, N. (2019). Plastic Teabags Release Billions of Microparticles and Nanoparticles into Tea. Environmental Science & Technology, 53(21), 12300–12310. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.9b02540
- Karami, A., Golieskardi, A., Keong Choo, C., Larat, V., Galloway, T. S., & Salamatinia, B. (2017). The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep46173
- Ousey, J., Boktor, J. C., & Mazmanian, S. K. (2023). Gut microbiota suppress feeding induced by palatable foods. Current Biology, 33(1), 147-157.e7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.10.066
- Gacesa, R., Kurilshikov, A., Vich Vila, A., Sinha, T., Klaassen, M. A. Y., Bolte, L. A., Andreu-Sánchez, S., Chen, L., Collij, V., Hu, S., Dekens, J. A. M., Lenters, V. C., Björk, J. R., Swarte, J. C., Swertz, M. A., Jansen, B. H., Gelderloos-Arends, J., Jankipersadsing, S., Hofker, M., . . . Weersma, R. K. (2022). Environmental factors shaping the gut microbiome in a Dutch population. Nature, 604(7907), 732–739. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04567-7
- Suez, J., Cohen, Y., Valdés-Mas, R., Mor, U., Dori-Bachash, M., Federici, S., Zmora, N., Leshem, A., Heinemann, M., Linevsky, R., Zur, M., Ben-Zeev Brik, R., Bukimer, A., Eliyahu-Miller, S., Metz, A., Fischbein, R., Sharov, O., Malitsky, S., Itkin, M., . . . Elinav, E. (2022). Personalized microbiome-driven effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on human glucose tolerance. Cell, 185(18), 3307-3328.e19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2022.07.016
- Berding, K., Bastiaanssen, T. F. S., Moloney, G. M., Boscaini, S., Strain, C. R., Anesi, A., Long-Smith, C., Mattivi, F., Stanton, C., Clarke, G., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2022). Feed your microbes to deal with stress: a psychobiotic diet impacts microbial stability and perceived stress in a healthy adult population. Molecular Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-022-01817-y
- Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the future, beset by inflation. (2022, October). American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2022/concerned-future-inflation
- Fernández-Alonso, M., Aguirre Camorlinga, A., Messiah, S. E., & Marroquin, E. (2022). Effect of adding probiotics to an antibiotic intervention on the human gut microbial diversity and composition: a systematic review. Journal of Medical Microbiology, 71(11). https://doi.org/10.1099/jmm.0.001625