Long-term lifestyle effects on the microbiome

Lifestyle events and choices can have long-lasting effects on the gut microbiome

An international group of researchers, including the team of Prof. Jeroen Raes (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology), has shown that lifestyle might have long-lasting effects on the composition of the gut microbiome. Their work appears in the journal Nature Aging 

Taking the long view 

Most studies on the human gut microbiome are quite short-term. We know, for example, that food-induced changes in microbiome composition last around two days. Or researchers take a snapshot of a large group of people in so-called cross-sectional studies to see how differences in environment and lifestyle correlate with differences in the microbiome. 

This makes it challenging to say anything about the potential long-term effects of different events and lifestyle choices. To tackle this, the team of Prof. Jeroen Raes (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology) studied the gut microbiome of participants in the Bruneck Study cohort. The Bruneck Study also collected clinical, demographic, lifestyle, and nutritional data of 304 Italian men and women for 26 years. ​ 

Together with colleagues from the Medical University Innsbruck (Austria) and the Hospital of Bruneck (Italy), the Raes team analyzed how life events and lifestyle choices affect the microbiome in the long term. 

Life-history matters 

The researchers found that several historical lifestyle factors – medication history, historical physical activity, past dietary habits, and blood markers – affect the composition of the current gut microbiome. ​ 

For example, changes in someone's medication history and hemoglobin levels over time were linked to their current microbiome. Long-term beta-blocker treatment was associated with having an inflammatory enterotype. Coprococcus, a bacterium previously found to be connected to iron deficiency, was also associated with hemoglobin levels, a blood component that also needs iron. Long-term exercise had positive effects on the host and the microbiome, increasing the abundance of beneficial bacteria that produce butyrate. This molecule feeds the cells in the gut lining and reduces inflammation. ​ 

Prof. Jeroen Raes summarizes it this way: "This work suggests that life choices affect not only affect your day-to-day gut microbiome health but also determine that of your future gut flora.” 
Dr. Jiyeon Si, who led the study, adds: "Our study demonstrates that some decisions and events can have a long-term impact on the health of your gut microbiome. ​ The effect of these historical variables is so strong that they can predict the current enterotype with information from over 20 years in the past. The results emphasize the key factors that are important for maintaining a healthy gut at a later life stage and their cumulative effects." 

Long-term life history predicts current gut microbiome in a population-based cohort study. Si et al. Nature Aging, 2022.

Gunnar De Winter

Gunnar De Winter

Science Communications Expert, VIB

About VIB

VIB’s core mission is to generate disruptive insights in the molecular underpinning of life and to translate these actively into impactful innovations for patients and society. VIB is an independent research institute where some 1,800 top scientists from Belgium and abroad conduct pioneering basic research. As such, they are pushing the boundaries of what we know about molecular mechanisms and how they rule living organisms such as human beings, animals, plants, and microorganisms. Based on a close partnership with five Flemish universities – Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and Hasselt University – and supported by a solid funding program, VIB unites the expertise of all its collaborators and research groups in a single institute. VIB’s technology transfer activities translate research results into concrete benefits for society such as new diagnostics and therapies and agricultural innovations. These applications are often developed by young start-ups from VIB or through collaborations with other companies. This also leads to additional employment and bridges the gap between scientific research and entrepreneurship. VIB also engages actively in the public debate on biotechnology by developing and disseminating a wide range of science-based information. 

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