NYU Abu Dhabi scientist who features in Netflix show has gut feeling about better health

Abu Dhabi professor, who features in the Hack Your Health documentary, explains the importance of microbes

Netflix documentary Hack Your Health outlines the impact of the gut microbiome on our overall well-being. Photo: NYU Abu Dhabi
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There is an entire universe inside us – a teeming ecosystem of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Collectively, they are known as the gut microbiome, an internal metropolis that plays a massive role in our overall health.

This is essentially what a recent Netflix documentary, Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut, is all about. Although it is a serious topic, the show is presented in a light-hearted manner through quirky animation and stop-motion graphics.

The top-line agenda from the documentary is simple: our gut may hold all the answers about our quality of life, from physical health to mental well-being.

“People thousands of years ago in every culture, from Greece to East India, all emphasise the gut,” explains Aashish Jha, a biology professor at NYU Abu Dhabi whose research appears on the show. “In India, for example, we have Ayurveda, and its basis is the gut. Take care of your gut, and you will be well.”

“These people probably didn't know about microbes because they were not discovered at that time. But there was already an appreciation of gut health even in ancient times.”

The microorganisms in our body play different roles, says Jha, from aiding our digestion to regulating our immune system. They release chemicals that interact with our body. The bifidobacteria, for example, which is present in our intestines break down fibre, while lactobacilli help shield us from various illnesses.

“Remove some of these good bacteria, and we can face a lot of issues. Our immune system becomes hyperactive. It sees something that it has not seen before, like pollens or food, and it will start attacking it,” he says.

“These microbial products regulate our nervous system and even our hormones. So gut microbiomes, if you really think about it, are the master regulators of our health.”

This is not all new information, but as implied in the Netflix documentary, existing research on gut health is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We've known for hundreds of years that this is the case; all we have to do is look to our language,” John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, says in the documentary. “When we're disappointed, we're gutted. When we're brave, we make gutsy moves. When we're nervous, we've got butterflies in our stomach.”

How to take care of your gut

When there is a delicate balance of the microbiome in our gut, we experience a symphony of well-being, says Jha.

“And what we eat is super-important,” he adds. The microbiome in our gut needs to eat, so they don't become harmful, and foods rich in fibre are crucial, explains Jha. “We're talking whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

“If we eat fibre-rich foods, they go into our gut and our body cannot degrade those fibres. This is where the good bacteria comes in. They can digest fibre and as they thrive, they survive and continue with their functions.

“Conversely, if we eat a lot of packaged and processed food, such as instant noodles, which don't have a lot of fibre, the good bacteria die and other types of harmful microorganisms will grow.”

This imbalance can manifest in a variety of ways, from instinctive digestive woes such as bloating and constipation to more far-reaching issues such as obesity, and even anxiety and depression.

Diet aside, our environment also affects our microbial composition, says Jha. “In rural areas for example, people interact with soil, plants and animals, and these can strengthen the immune system.

“But in an urban environment, we live in an ultra-sanitised world where our exposure to different bacteria is low, and that is not necessarily good.”

Apples and oranges

Jha, who joined NYU Abu Dhabi in 2020 after getting his postdoctoral degree from the University of Chicago, has been researching the difference between the gut microbiome of people who live in rural areas versus those who live in highly urbanised environments.

The research, featured on the Netflix documentary, shows how people who live more traditional lives (such as foragers and farmers) have a very distinct microbial composition than those who live in industrialised cities.

“We know that urbanisation exerts a tremendous and selective pressure on the gut because we have different types of foods in the urban environment,” says Jha. “And they tend to be ultra-processed, low on fibre content and very high in calories.”

This explains, for example, why some food allergies are more prevalent in one population versus another, and why some people's digestive systems are more sensitive.

In the UAE, he says, there is enough diversity of available foods, but he believes behaviours need to change.

“There are enough food options in supermarkets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Not as much as I would like to see, but yes, they're there. But I think what is happening is our habits are very different. If you walk into the supermarket, you're tempted to eat a cookie rather than eating an apple,” explains Jha.

“Rather than snacking on an orange, we like to snack on Cheetos. Both of them are available, but one is packaged in a very beautiful way and the other one is just an orange, right? There's not a lot of things you can do to make an orange sexy.”

Jha has also done research on obesity in the Emirati population, but the results are yet to be published. While there is an increasing interest in the study on oral and gut microbiome in the UAE, getting to a stage where people are comfortable and willing to share what is needed for the research has proven to be challenging.

The biggest gut health myth

Gut health has become a buzzword on social media, but Jha says the biggest misconception is that people can reconstitute their gut without changing their lifestyle.

“A lot of people will continue eating processed food, they will not exercise, but they will consume doses of probiotics.”

However, he adds: “Just taking supplements is not going to be enough to to restore your gut health.”

Taking care of the gut is an investment in our overall well-being. Jha says nurturing the trillions of tiny residents that live within us could be key in laying the groundwork for a healthier and happier life.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 2:04 PM