Immigrating to the U.S. Can Harm Your Gut Health

Immigrants arriving in the United States have a plethora of changes with which they must contend. Whether navigating cultural differences, adjusting to geography starkly different from their native countries, or striving to maintain connections with friends and family they left behind, our nation can dramatically shift the reality of those who arrive on its shores to chase the American dream. A new study released this month suggests that immigration imparts more than emotional upheaval. It can alter one’s microbiome, potentially setting off a chain reaction of health problems that can extend through multiple generations.

The study, which was published in the scientific journal Cell, focuses on how long-term changes in locale affect the trillions of bacteria living in our digestive systems. These microbes affect many facets of our wellbeing, from our mood to our body mass index, and biologists generally agree that a more diverse variety of microbes is more conducive to a healthy digestive tract. When the study followed multiple generations of immigrants from Southeast Asia to the U.S., it was discovered that the diversity of their digestive microbes dropped precipitously. And along with the drop in microbe variety, obesity rates soared.

Dan Knights, a computational microbiologist and the University of Minnesota who wrote the study, summarized the findings in an interview with The Washington Post. “We found that moving to a new country changes your microbiome. You pick up the microbiome of the new country and possibly some of the new disease risks that are more common in that country.” The study points to several factors in how immigrating to the U.S. can negatively affect digestive microbes. Our diet tends to be higher in sugar, fat, and protein than many other countries around the world. This leads to a drop in “native” microbes and an overall decrease in microbe diversity. Differences in drinking water and available antibiotics were also found to have a negative effect on the variety of digestive microbes. As microbial diversity decreases, the risk of metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes increases. [See Immigrants Arrive with Flourishing Gut Microbes. Then America’s Diet Trashes Them by Ben Guarino, The Washington Post, 02.Nov.2018.]

The Cell study solidified prevailing theories about the impact of Western regions on the digestive tract health of immigrants. “We have known from some small, not well controlled studies that the microbiome does change – and we have known for many years that adopting a Western lifestyle is associated with an increase in disease,” explained microbial expert Jack Gilbert, who is the director of the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center and was not directly involved in the study. “This brings these two concepts together.” And while further research is still needed to determine if there is a direct link between microbial changes and obesity in immigrants, the study’s authors warn that a pattern seems to be emerging based on their data. “Because we were able to confirm the same findings in two different [Asian] ethnic groups, we expect that we would see something similar happening in the other immigrant groups,” cautioned Knights.


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