Good news, vapers – people who smoke e-cigarettes have the same mix of “flourishing” gut bacteria as non-smokers, according to new research published in the journal PeerJ. In contrast, people who smoke traditional cigarettes show significant (and negative) changes in their gut flora.
For the study, a team of researchers from Newcastle University in the UK analyzed the composition of the gut microbiomes – the collections of microorganisms within our digestive systems – of tobacco smokers, e-cigarette smokers, and non-smokers in fecal, mouth, and saliva samples using targeted gene sampling to determine what bacteria were present and in what numbers.
The results show few differences between the mouth swabs from the three groups, which – as the researchers point out – is surprising given the mouth's proximity to cigarette smoke.
Instead, the most significant changes were noticed in the fecal samples and, therefore, the gut. While the gut microbiomes of e-cigarette smokers appeared almost interchangeable with those of non-smokers, the samples from smokers of traditional tobacco cigarettes displayed higher levels of Prevotella bacteria and lower levels of Bacteroides bacteria.
Prevotella is a potentially harmful bacterium that has been linked to colon cancer and colitis. Bacteroides, on the other hand, is a benign bacterium (a probiotic) that in lower numbers could raise a person’s risk of obesity and their chances of developing Crohn’s disease.
"The bacterial cells in our body outnumber our own human cells and our microbiome weighs more than our brain, yet we are only just beginning to understand its importance on our health," Dr Christopher Stewart, a faculty fellow at Newcastle University's Institute of Cellular Medicine and lead author of the paper, said in a statement
For example, recent studies have linked our gut microbiome to everything from our weight and food cravings to our mood and sleeping behavior – to even the way we think. The composition of gut bacteria could also be responsible for conditions such as depression and autoimmune diseases like lupus.
And while there has been a huge surge in e-cigarette use over the past five years or so, the health effects are only just starting to be explored. This is the very first time the microbiomes of e-cigarette users have been compared to those of tobacco smokers. However, it is worth pointing out that it was a pilot study with just 30 participants (10 from each category), of which only two were women.
As Stewart explained, "More investigation is needed but to find that vaping is less damaging than smoking on our gut bacteria adds to the incentive to change to e-cigarettes and for people to use them as a tool to quit smoking completely."