The very last thing you’re probably thinking about when watching exciting science-fiction films like Interstellar or Gravity is the gut health of the astronauts flying through space.
But that doesn’t mean Earth-bound scientists aren’t studying or thinking about it… a lot!
Some of these studies could have some important real-world implications and benefits, even for the 99.99 percent of us who will never fly higher than 39,000 feet (slightly more than 7 miles) in the air.
The Twins Study
The most current and popular project has been the Twins Study, encompassing 10 NASA-funded studies that compared the molecular structures of identical twin astronauts: Scott Kelly who spent nearly a year in space living in a zero-gravity environment and his brother Mark who stayed on the planet as an “Earth-bound control subject.”
One of these research projects, based in Chicago at Northwestern University, Rush University Medical School and the University of Illinois, discovered some interesting fluctuations in the gut microbiomes of both brothers.
Researchers found imbalances in two dominant groups of bacteria (Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes) had shifted in Scott Kelly’s while space bound and returned to pre-flight levels after arriving back on Earth. Interestingly, Mark Kelly’s gut microbiome fluctuated in those two areas too, however, not as drastically as his twin.
Another very surprising result: An expected change in gut diversity while Scott Kelly was in space never happened.
Female astronauts need probiotics
A pair of Canadian researchers at Western University made a good case for female astronauts taking probiotics in a 2016 report appearing in the health journal Women’s Health.
Scientists believe the unique challenges female astronauts face — osteoporosis, breast cancer, compromised vaginal health and urinary tract infections (UTIs) — could be more problematic during space flights.
For instance, women experience more UTIs during space missions than their male counterparts. Treating women with antibiotics may be problematic due to gravity, not to mention the complications associated with overusing them, which is why researchers believe probiotics may be a better option.
“It’s important to look at the health of women,” said Carmilla Urbaniak, a Ph.D. candidate working at the school’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, according to a press release.
“We know that drugs interact differently in males and females. The impact of probiotics are also different between males and females, and it’s time we focused our research on female astronauts.”
Studying gut health on a microchip
Preventing disease isn’t the only concern on the minds of one lab funded by NASA at the University of Arizona’s Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine.
Researchers there have created amazing “gut-on-a-chip” technology that mimics the internal workings of the human gut. Its primary function for this research is to test how the human gut will respond to cosmic radiation exposure during long periods of space travel.
Among the more practical applications for this microchip technology include the development of probiotics that could treat or even prevent radiation damage, says Dr. Frederick Zenhausen.
Don’t forget traveling on planet Earth
Back a bit closer to planet Earth, you may be traveling long distances in airplanes, especially over the long holiday season, to see family members far and wide.
Doing so creates opportunities for jet lag, a temporary sleep problem that happens when people travel quickly across multiple time zones.
These abrupt time shifts can also create problems for your gut, not only by messing up your body’s natural 24-hour circadian rhythms but playing a role in triggering the accumulation of body fat that leads to obesity.
Getting the right amount of sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet goes a long way toward combating the effects of jet lag, but so does protecting the health of your gut.
Taking a probiotic with multiple strains of beneficial bacteria, like EndoMune Advanced Probiotic, every day gives your gut the extra protection it needs when traveling on land or in the air.