Alana and Lisa Macfarlane (The Mac Twins) are DJs and Presenters spinning records on Virgin Radio and entertaining us on the goggle box. Whilst gigging by night, they support science by day as part of the British Gut Project/Twin Research at King’s College London. They have been shocked and excited by what they have learnt about the importance of their gut microbiome in relation to health.
“We’ve always been fascinated by food, but growing up in Scotland eating deep fried pizzas and chips, we only knew what kale was because we used to give it to the guinea pig on his birthday. That all changed when we volunteered for TwinsUK research at King’s.”
Twins are great for medical research and they became the “chief guinea pigs” for the British Gut project where they discovered that despite having 100% the same DNA, their guts have only 40% the same microbes. This could explain why their bodies behave so differently. Thus their ‘gut journey’ began.
Identical twins mean 100% of your genes are the same. Were you born vaginally or by caesarean. And which of you is the eldest?
We were both born vaginally (well done Mother Mac!), 14 minutes apart (7 minutes to 5 and 7 minutes past 5 in the afternoon – like a mirrored clock – we are also mirror twins!) Alana is the eldest but Lisa is the boss.
Did you suffer any particular childhood illnesses or particular health events that may have given your gut microbiome a big shake-up?
Lisa – Yes, we both had bronchitis as babies, which led to hospital visits and we then had recurring ear infections during early childhood with lots of antibiotics as a result. We both eventually had our adenoids and tonsils out (part of the body’s immune system). We suffered the fun and games of grommets that would regularly fall out! But we did get to eat ice cream for a week after the tonsil operation!!
Alana – I had a bad urine infection aged 4 and was hospitalized and given antibiotics and then diagnosed with juvenile chronic arthritis (aged 7). I had to go to hospital 3 times a week for hydrotherapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy and had anti-inflammatory and steroid injections for 10 years until I took myself off them. I’m in remission from the arthritis now. Whilst my joints are still stiff, I manage that with hot yoga.
Lisa I suffered from bad acne in my teens and for a number of years from the age of 19, I was on and off antibiotics to try to control it. Alana never had acne despite it being one of the most strongly heritable conditions. I was also diagnosed with OCD around the age of 21. We are 28 now. About 3 years ago, I suffered a really bad kidney infection and E Coli and, as a result, I have been on lots of antibiotics over the last few years. Until we found out about gut health, that is, and now I am trying my best to avoid taking them.
Do you still have your appendix?
Yes! Neither of us have had it removed. Some scientists now think the appendix is a storage vessel for our gut bacteria and helps to re-seed our gut if it has become depleted or upset.
What do you consider to be the biggest health difference (based around gut health) that distinguishes you from your twin?
Lisa – we only have 40% the same microbiome. I am always a stone heavier than Alana and I generally gets more colds and feel more sluggish. I think that is probably due to the effect on my gut microbes of all those antibiotics.
What is the single most important thing you have learnt from the twin research you are involved in and from your gut health research that has galvanised you to change your behaviour?
Alana – that gut health is linked to LITERALLY EVERYTHING. It has shocked us into being much more mindful about what we put in, and on, our bodies and how truly brilliant we’ve felt since we’ve ditched the fads and simply focused on keeping our microbiome in tip top shape.
And what changes have you made?
Alana – where do we start…we eat more variety. I fast regularly. We love making and consuming fermented food and drinks every day (we had never even tried any of them before). I think we have just read up on the gut microbiome and been prepared to try new things to better support it. Our absolute number one priority now is to support our bacteria. We no longer focus on dieting and weight loss.
No doubt stuff still gets in the way of applying what you have learnt to your daily life. What is your biggest stumbling block? And what are your strategies for coping with this?
Lisa – with the sociable and hectic nature of our lifestyles, alcohol is our biggest stumbling block. We have cut it down considerably when at home and now do our best to stick to organic sulphite-free red wine where possible. And of course, kombucha cocktails are yummy!
Assuming you have had your gut microbiome sequenced, of which bacteria that you host are you most proud? And why?
Lisa – we both managed to get our Christensenella microbes up significantly during one study and felt significantly better (Alana had much more to start with and her gut was functioning A LOT BETTER than mine).
From your gut microbiome sequencing results, what was the most striking difference between your microbiome and that of your twin?
Alana – I have more Christensenella, the “skinny” bacteria, which could explain why I’m always slightly leaner. I also had a much more diverse array of bacteria, which is what we are all aiming for.
Are there any specific differences between you and your twin in terms of ability to digest certain foods – e.g milk/gluten?
Lisa – I struggle to digest white bread and pasta but Alana can eat what she likes and poos regularly and loves talking about it to anybody who will listen -ha ha!
Is there a food that you love that your twin hates? What is it?
Alana – We will both eat just about anything, but Lisa hates celery – food of the devil she says!
Which of you is better able to tolerate stress and anxiety?
Lisa – Alana is certainly more of a Steady Eddie – she sees everything in black and white, whereas I am more creative and tend to be more emotional than practical!
What is the spookiest “6th sense” twin experience you have ever had?
Lisa – When Alana broke her arm aged 7, I said I felt it but really, I just wanted some attention too!! No ‘gut feelings’ going on there I am afraid!
Find out more about Lisa and Alana’s journey with the gut microbiome at The Gut Stuff.