Horror movies play on our worst fears, suggesting that a dread of being eaten alive lurks deep in the human psyche.
The recently widely reported news that our human bodies contain more cells of foreign microbiota than human cells may have already been making some queasy. Research suggests that keeping these "house guests" happy may be essential to our own well-being, affecting everything from our weight balance, our mood, and now the suppression of a very personal horror-film scenario rolling right in our own digestive system. It seems that if we don't feed the buggers fiber, they might be eating us!
A thick protective layer generated by the cells in the wall of our colons acts as a barrier, preventing harmful microbes from attacking the cells themselves. Research led by Dr Mahesh Desai at the Department of Infection and Immunity of the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) hints that dietary fiber plays two critical roles in keeping our cell walls safe. First, it is important to understand that we actually could not digest a lot of the nutritional value in high-fiber vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other foods without the help of our gut microbiome. These minuscule factories do the work of breaking down the complex fibers into nutritional building blocks that our own bodies can process.
But our guts contain an ecosystem of microbes, each in competition with the other for survival. The "good" bacteria that break down fiber need that fibrous food to survive. Starving them of fiber allows other microbes to compete more successfully - a bit like killing wolves might cause a rabbit population to boom.
But there's more to it than that (and here is where the horror film scenario really starts). If we starve these helpful bacteria, they are forced to look harder for food - which they find in the lining barrier of our own colons. As the lining barrier gets eaten away, the real onslaught begins; harmful bacteria can now directly attack the cells. In the words of Dr. Desai:
"To make it simple, the 'holes' created by our microbiota while eroding the mucus serve as wide open doors for pathogenic micro-organisms to invade."
The study throws off one more very important observation: purified prebiotic fibers don't help stop the degradation of the protective layer. I am sure the purveyors of these wonder supplements will find reasons to doubt the results, in particular because this pioneering research was conducted in mice and may not reflect the situation in the human gut fully, but it seems that this horror scenario should prompt us to mind our mothers' advice about eating our vegetables.
Ready the study in Cell.