Obesity is a worldwide problem that has tripled in the space of half a century1. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 39% of adults aged 18 and over are overweight and 13% are obese.
What if someone were to tell you that tucked away in our intestines, our gut microbiota could affect our appetite, our weight and our capacity for storing fat?2
About this article
What is obesity?
Obesity and overweight are most often the results of an imbalance between calories taken in and calories expended by the body – in particular, too much fat or sugar relative to actual energy expenditure3,4. The resulting excessive increase in body fat can be harmful for health and significantly reduce life expectancy3. Individuals who are overweight or obese are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as type 2 diabetes5,6. Obesity is also linked to a number of cancers (such as liver and uterine cancer)6. Body mass index (BMI) provides an approximate indication of overweight and obesity. WHO considers overweight to equate to a BMI of 25 or more and obesity to a BMI of 30 or above1.
Repercussions beyond the gut
The balance between energy taken in and energy expended lies partly in bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain - what researchers refer to as the gut-brain axis10. This communication between neurons and bacteria is achieved through “signal” molecules which include “short chain fatty acids” and “neurotransmitters”5,6,11. The gut microbiota uses these messengers to help the brain to regulate energy balance, appetite and the feeling of satiety6, and also modulates mood and eating behaviour9,10. It can be seen that gut microbiota and obesity are inextricably linked; when the gut microbiota is impaired, it disrupts the digestion, the body’s defence system and the brain, with which it communicates to manage hunger9. Like in a closed electrical circuit, the different “devices” are connected to one another and allow information (good or bad) to travel between the gut and the brain.
Can modifying the microbiota help to lose weight?
The solution ought to be straightforward, then: slim down and melt away those extra pounds by looking after your microbiota! The experts will tell you it's not quite that simple, though: it requires an understanding of how diet, probiotics and prebiotics, and faecal microbiota transplant (FMT) influence the ecosystem of our gut microbiota.
- Diet: Diet is of course the number one risk factor for obesity. It is also the main driver of microbiota modulation. Currently, no categorical link has been established between the effect on intestinal flora and the extent of weight loss12. Conversely, the response to a diet is thought to be the result of the initial composition of our intestinal microbiota.7,11
- Probiotics: Many animal studies show that certain probiotics stand out and are thought to affect metabolic profile, weight gain or satiety in rodents.2,7,13,14. The results in humans are encouraging: while there is not so much data, certain specific probiotics had an impact on weight, BMI, waist measurement, body fat and metabolic profile.2,5,6
- Prebiotics: The results for prebiotics differ in humans, whereas their beneficial effects have been widely demonstrated in the laboratory setting2. Generally speaking, studies show that prebiotics have an effect on satiety7, but that there is unfortunately no knock-on effect on weight.2
- Faecal microbiota transplant: Other therapies for modulating gut microbiota are being investigated, including faecal microbiota transplant (FMT), a current treatment for recurrent Clostridioides difficile infection. Researchers are evaluating its potential benefit in correcting dysbiosis and in influencing eating behaviour and energy metabolism.7
- Cerdó T, García-Santos JA, G Bermúdez M, et al. The Role of Probiotics and Prebiotics in the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity. Nutrients. 2019;11(3):635.
- Blüher M. Obesity: global epidemiology and pathogenesis. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2019;15(5):288-298..
- Maruvada P, Leone V, Kaplan LM, et al. The Human Microbiome and Obesity: Moving beyond Associations. Cell Host Microbe. 2017;22(5):589-599.
- Barathikannan K, Chelliah R, Rubab M, et al. Gut Microbiome Modulation Based on Probiotic Application for Anti-Obesity: A Review on Efficacy and Validation. Microorganisms. 2019;7(10):456..
- Abenavoli L, Scarpellini E, Colica C, et al. Gut Microbiota and Obesity: A Role for Probiotics. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2690.
- Levy M, Kolodziejczyk AA, Thaiss CA, Elinav E. Dysbiosis and the immune system. Nat Rev Immunol. 2017;17(4):219-232.
- Lee CJ, Sears CL, Maruthur N. Gut microbiome and its role in obesity and insulin resistance. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2020;1461(1):37-52.
- Mulders RJ, de Git KCG, Schéle E, et al. Microbiota in obesity: interactions with enteroendocrine, immune and central nervous systems. Obes Rev. 2018;19(4):435-451.
- Torres-Fuentes C, Schellekens H, Dinan TG, et al. The microbiota-gut-brain axis in obesity. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;2(10):747-756.
- Rastelli M, Knauf C, Cani PD. Gut Microbes and Health: A Focus on the Mechanisms Linking Microbes, Obesity, and Related Disorders. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2018;26(5):792-800.
- Silva YP, Bernardi A, Frozza RL. The Role of Short-Chain Fatty Acids From Gut Microbiota in Gut-Brain Communication. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2020;11:25.
- Baj A, Moro E, Bistoletti M, Orlandi V, Crema F, Giaroni C. Glutamatergic Signaling Along The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(6):1482.