A gut feeling: why the mycobiome could be the new frontier in healthy eating

We’re already backing good bacteria, but what about the body’s fungi?

8 January 2018
gut healthhealthnutritionprobiotic
image credit: ChrisChrisW/iStock/thinkstock.co.uk

What is the microbiome?

  • The community of microorganisms that inhabit the body
  • It primarily consists of bacteria, fungi and viruses
  • Bacteria are the largest population, with between 75 and 200 trillion

Fermentation, pickling, probiotics – you’re probably familiar with all these trendy terms. All of them are related to the human microbiome and its effect on gut health. In particular, they help control the levels of bacteria in the body.

It doesn’t sound very sexy – except it increasingly is, as we move beyond yoghurt pots to exotic recipes like kefir sodas and Persian kimchi. Drinks and foods like these have been popping up in retailers and restaurants more and more, aimed at fostering balance in the digestive system.

For the second year running, the microbiome was dubbed the hot topic in the future of food design and nutrition at industry-wide event Food Matters Live.

But bacteria is only part of the story. Recently, studies have been looking into another essential part of the microbiome: fungi. And with that comes a whole host of potential healthy-eating products.

Where’s the fungi in that?

As nutritionist Dr. Laura Wyness notes, “Much of the research to date has focused on the bacterial gut microbiome rather than the fungal microbiota, or 'mycobiome.’ However, the important role of the gut mycobiome in human health and well-being is an exciting area of current research.”

So what do we know – or suspect we know – about the mycobiome so far? Well, it has been linked to diseases such as bowel inflammation (IBD), diarrhoea, benign colorectal tumours and even obesity. It is thought that fungi from plant- and animal-based foods survive the digestive process and go on to colonise the gut, like an invading army intent on conquest.

Suspected culprits of aiding the assault include bread and beer (as well as other yeast-containing foods and drinks), high-carbohydrate diets and meat.

However, it’s important to note that this is still quite speculative, largely because gut bacteria has been hogging the spotlight for so long.

Can you stomach it?

Dr. Mahmoud A. Ghannoum is a keen proponent of the mycobiome. A professor at Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, he recently co-published a paper on its role in health and disease. In this paper, he remarked that the interaction of bacteria and fungi is key to combatting gut diseases.

This theory is backed up by other studies that have shown how things like a high-fat diet can affect not just the level of fungi and bacteria in the body, but also the way the two coordinate.

The optimal solution, according to Ghannoum, is to introduce “an antifungal to eliminate this overgrowth, followed by administration of a probiotic containing both good bacteria and good fungus to restore the balance of beneficial organisms.”

What does this mean for the food industry? Well, where before we had ingredients and dishes solely targeting human bacteria, there is now the potential to go even further, breaking new ground in the wellness world. For instance, creating a whole new range of probiotic snacks with a two-pronged action, targeting both bacteria and fungi.

Of course, the problems with describing something as a ‘probiotic’ on labelling would still apply, and that’s certainly something for manufacturers to consider. On the other hand, the value of the European probiotic market is set to reach almost £15 billion in six years. So perhaps it's worth the investment.

A brave new world

While current data seems to show that eating certain foods can fight fungi that try to colonise the gut, Wyness notes that the research is challenging. Partly, this is because it’s difficult to tell whether the diversity and abundance of fungi in the gut are a cause or a consequence of intestinal diseases.

Other issues relate to identifying exactly how important a role fungal species play compared to genetics, environment and other microbes in the gut. There’s also a lack of common methodology when approaching the science, as it’s still such a brave new world.

Because of this, what exactly consumers should eat to combat bad fungi and encourage good fungi – and its relationship with good bacteria – is still underexplored territory. But if the ongoing obsession with the microbiome is anything to go by, the mycobiome could be the next big piece in the healthy-eating puzzle.

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