Overweight? Blame it on germs

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2013

TV watchers from a generation ago might remember Flip Wilson's famous line, "The devil made me do it!" Considering how easy it is for us to gain weight and how difficult it is to lose it, it's tempting — pardon the pun — to blame the obesity epidemic on something other than the lack of willpower, computer games, fast food or restaurant serving sizes. In our column of June, 2012 (Can viruses make you fat?) we explored one possibility, a virus known as Adenovirus 36. It's a common agent of respiratory infections but the theory that it causes obesity hasn't taken hold in the general medical community. Researchers may be more curious than medical practitioners and several studies have been published or are in progress to determine whether Adenovirus 36 is a factor in the obesity epidemic. If only things could be so simple! More candidate germs are emerging in this drama.

Scientists have developed tools that have revealed vast amounts of information about the bacteria that live within us and two factors as widely divergent as chocolate and tobacco have led investigators to uncover information about the causes of obesity. The only thing that tobacco and chocolate have in common is that they are both derived from plants — if you ignore the fact that it's hard to give either one up.

Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live within the intestine. There are hundreds of different species of bacteria in our intestinal tract but it turns out that obese persons don't have the same ones that normal-weight persons have. In a classic chicken-or-egg dilemma, a high intake of sugar and starch that leads to obesity might influence which bacteria take over. On the other hand, there is some evidence to show that certain kinds of bacteria cause weight gain by extracting more calories from food or changing the way that insulin works to increase fat stores.

Adding to the intrigue is that persons who quit smoking acquire the kinds of intestinal germs that are associated with obesity, possibly explaining the weight gain that is so typical after successful smoking cessation.

Persons who crave chocolate — that's most of us — have different intestinal bacteria than the few who don't. Do those germs cause us to crave chocolate or do chocolate eaters nourish the bacteria?

The solution might be to switch from cigarettes to chocolate. I hope that some scientists somewhere are working on that.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.