Dr Mosley: ‘A healthy gut can cure disease’
ONE of the exciting new frontiers of science is gut microbiome – the community of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes in our guts, and Dr Michael Mosley is all over it. Mosley, 62, a former British investment banker, turned medical doctor turned science journalist, documentary maker and best-selling author, loves talking about guts.
He says the state of our gut microbiome influences our risk of developing serious illnesses such as diabetes and cancer, as well as anxiety, depression, even behavioural issues. Incredibly, diseases that were long thought to originate in the brain such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis may actually start in the gut.
In 2012, Mosley was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He had a blocked coronary artery and was a chronic insomniac. With a strong family history of stroke and high cholesterol, no male member of his family had lived past the age of 72. His father, who also had type 2 diabetes, died at this age. His grandfather died aged 65.
Faced with the probability his own life would end prematurely, Mosley decided to do something about it and began learning all he could about nutrition. He has now gained something of a cult-like following with his health investigations that challenge conventional health and nutritional advice and often involve some form of self experimentation.
He is well known on the Australian small screen with his Trust Me, I’m a Doctor series.
Mosley kicked off his interest in nutrition with an investigation of the benefits of intermittent fasting. He made a 2012 BBC Horizon film titled Eat, Fast and Live Longer, co-authored a best-selling book The Fast Diet and pioneered the 5:2 eating plan that restricts calorie intake two days a week.
He has since written other bestsellers: The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, The Clever Guts Diet, Fast Exercise and, most recently, The Fast 800 that is based on an 800-calorie-a-day rapid weight-loss diet. Today, on a personal health level, Mosley now has no sign of diabetes, his blocked artery has cleared and his sleep has improved. He is now “optimistic” of living in good health into his 80s. Mosley will tour Australia in September with his live show Wonders of the Human Body. While here, he will also speak at an inflammation conference in Sydney.
Speaking to Qweekend by phone from England, Mosley says “an awful lot” of the stuff he writes comes back to inflammation, which is an essential part of the body’s immune system that responds to injury and infection. However, ongoing or “misdirected” inflammation has been linked to many diseases.
“Inflammation is one of the big drivers behind depression and anxiety as well as heart disease, cancers and diabetes,” he says. “Intermittent fasting seems to be helpful because it reduces inflammation. One of the ways it reduces inflammation is by its impact on your microbiome, your gut bacteria.”
DIET IS KEY
There are trillions of microbes of about 1000 different species in a human gut – weighing up to about two kilograms – and as many neurons as you would find in the brain of a cat.
In his The Clever Guts Diet book, Mosley recommends a “lowish carb”, largely Mediterranean-style diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains, oily fish, nuts, seeds and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. He says junk food and the overuse of antibiotics have wiped out many beneficial gut bacteria that are responsible for keeping our immune system in check.
“Those trillions of microbes influence not just things like diabetes and your cancer risk but also your risk of anxiety and depression,” Mosley says. “Studies show things like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis seem to start in the gut and gradually spread from the gut to the brain. If you can intervene early enough by changing the microbiome, that can have a big impact on these brain diseases.
“Once upon a time, these diseases were thought to originate in the brain but it now seems to be pretty clear that they start a long time earlier in the gut and spread from there.
“Who would have thought that depression and anxiety originate in the gut? It’s fascinating stuff and that’s what I love about science. You learn all sorts of new stuff and that’s what I want to share on this tour.”
During his live show tour, Mosley will also make use of BBC archival footage to show “awesome images of the brain and internal workings of the human body” in a “celebration of the human body”. Audiences will be able to pre-submit questions for Mosley to answer on the night.
“I’m going to be looking into the body and showing you how your body works but also how to keep it in optimal condition,” Mosley says.
Mosley says people are more fascinated than ever about their health and inner workings of their bodies, perhaps driven by longer lifespans and the availability of knowledge at our fingertips thanks to the internet.
As part of this growing interest, American-British author Bill Bryson is also bringing a live stage show – Observations on Life and the Human Body, about “understanding the extraordinary contraption that is us” – to Australia in September (in Brisbane on September 11).
CAN’T STAY AWAY
Mosley has a bit of a love affair going on with Australia. He travels here every six months or so and was last in the country in June as a guest speaker at conferences in Perth and Sydney.
He has many friends from medical school who live here; his son Daniel, 25, is currently working in Melbourne for an AI (artificial intelligence) company; and his son, Jack, 27, a recently graduated doctor, is planning “a missing year” on Australia’s east coast.
Mosley has been married to doctor Clare Bailey for 34 years, who he met in medical school. Bailey writes all the recipes that accompany his books. (Mosley is particularly keen on her low-sugar, red kidney bean chocolate cake.) They also have son Alex, 29, and a daughter Kate, 20.
Mosley says Australia is “right there at the cutting edge” and a “hotbed of really terrific research” regarding the impact of food on mood.
He also takes his original inspiration for self-experimentation from one of his “medical heroes” West Australian Dr Barry Marshall, whose consumption of live bacteria proved Helicobacter pylori, not stress, is the cause of stomach ulcers. (Marshall and his collaborator Dr Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for their discovery).
In 1994, Mosley, who had only begun to work with BBC television at the time, filmed a documentary with Marshall and Warren titled Ulcer Wars. “That was my first science film,” Mosley says. “Barry was my inspiration; he was a self-experimenter and he was one of the main reasons I became a television presenter and got into doing horrible things to myself.”
Mosley says that film initially received a hostile reception from the medical profession and is an example of how long it can take for change to be widely adopted.
Mosley says it is frustrating nutrition is still not included in modern medical degrees, citing the experience of his son Jack, who “was taught nothing” about food or nutrition or how to help people become more active.
“Sadly this is not taught in medical school,” Mosley says. “But I have a lot of friends who are doctors in Australia and they say there is an underground movement, if you like, a desire for change.
“With Barry and Robin, it was really only when they won the Nobel prize in 2005 that doctors suddenly realised this was a whole new way of treating ulcers which could actually cure ulcers. It totally transformed that branch of medicine but it took 20 years.
“I believe this is an unbelievably exciting time to be involved in the world of nutrition because so much new stuff is happening.
“And there is a move in the universities – mainly driven by medical students – to get this (the impact of food and exercise) as part of their curriculum. So things are moving … but I think generally in medicine things move very slowly.”
Gut microbiome may only be an emerging frontier of science but Mosley is right out there leading the charge. ■
Wonders of the Human Body, September 25, City Hall, Brisbane. michaelmosley.co.uk
And Dr Michael Mosley is all over it.
MICHAEL MOSLEY’S TOP FIVE TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH
1. Eat a diet richer in fibre. Consume as many different types of fibre as you can for a healthy microbiome. Fibre is “hugely important” in its different forms.
2. Incorporate fermented products in your diet including foods like yoghurt and kimchi.
3. If you are not active, try doing “active 10” – three brisk 10-minute walks a day.
4. Prioritise sleep. Try and get up at the same time every morning. People who sleep badly generally have chaotic sleep patterns.
5. Prioritise your relationship. If you have a partner or a spouse then tell them how much you love and cherish them and take them out for a decent meal. Relationships are the most important things.