Have you ever “had a gutful” of something? Or had a “gut feeling” about somebody?
It turns out that our gut is vastly more complex and fascinating than merely a very long, food-processing tube. In fact, the gut has come to be regarded as the “second brain”, with 50-100 million nerve cells, equal to the amount found in the spinal cord. We now know that the gut is actually a sensory organ, constantly collecting and receiving information.
Thick nerve cables connect the gut to the brain, and transfer information in both directions. Hormones and other signalling molecules produced by the gut send messages to the brain, which signals back to the gut to adjust its functions, which generates sensations, such as feelings of fullness, feelings of discomfort or unease, or feelings of well-being.
These feelings are then stored in the vast database of the insular cortex of the brain, and accessed (all without conscious thought or effort) when making future decisions on what to eat, where to eat, the company we keep, and even major life choices.
Inside the human gut lives more than 100 trillion microbes, which are unique to each person, and communicate with us, constantly producing and adjusting metabolite production, depending on the foods and ingredients they sense in the gut.
The unique ratio of microbes in your gut is affected by your genes, your mother’s microbiome, the microbes carried by others in our household, or in close contact with us, our environment, our diet, antibiotic or drug use, and even the thoughts we think.
Abnormal gut microbe populations (also known as dysbiosis) have been found in people with:
- autism spectrum disorder,
- Alzheimer’s disease,
- ulcerative colitis,
- Crohn’s disease,
- irritable bowel syndrome,
This indicates that the microbiome in our gut has vast implications for our overall health and wellbeing.
How does our diet affect our gut bacteria
What we eat plays an important role in whether our gut microbiome remains stable, or falls into dysbiosis. Over the last few years, science has started to emerge that this gut microbiota may actually drive our emotions, more so than the brain.
For example, studies have found that regular consumption of probiotics and fermented foods reduced anxiety behaviours, in both animals and humans. Surprisingly, this was not due to increasing numbers of beneficial bacteria, as originally assumed, but a change in the metabolites produced by the gut microbes.
Another interesting finding was that participants who consumed probiotics and yoghurt had less response to negative stimuli, suggesting that a healthy gut microbiota increases emotional resilience. However, it’s not enough just to have the right bacteria, one must eat the right foods and the correct types of fibres for the bacteria to grow and establish themselves.
Some gut microbes can stimulate production of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate emotions, sleep, pain sensitivity and wellbeing.
People who eat a mainly plant-based diet have an increased number of microbes with the ability to digest and extract nutrients from plants, while people who eat a lot of animal-based products have more microbes which can digest these foods, although some have been found to produce inflammatory metabolites.
As our diets change and fluctuate, so too, do the microbes in our gut, the genes they express, and the metabolites they produce, which then signal to the brain via the bloodstream and the vagus nerve.
According to gastroenterologist Emeran Mayer, MD, we can ensure a healthy gut microbiome, by regular consumption of fermented foods, periodic fasting, refraining from eating when stressed or upset, reducing animal fats, and choosing natural and organic whole foods.
One such food that has really hit the health headlines in recent times is something called Kefir. It is a natural grain, considered to be one of the oldest and most beneficial cultured milk beverages in existence. Having understood how much the gut ecology influences are overall health – having regular amount of Kefir will help modify this, help breakdown cellulose and starches in the diet, making them more digestible. This can result in an increased tolerance to some foods, as well as improved absorption of minerals.
How can I master my gut?
It’s important to understand when looking at changing our health for the better – often individuals will begin to look at their lifestyle – diets, fitness levels and ways in which they can strengthen their ability to cope with life’s demands with activities like yoga, mindful meditation and more. All these are going in the right direction. However, where possible – “start with as clean a canvas as possible” is the way I advise patients to go:
Imagine you have a home – you know there are things in it which you absolutely love and make you feel good – and there are things that always leave you frustrated and just tired looking at them – like the endless clutter out or in cupboards, or paperwork that just seems to pile up.
In the same way, think of of your gut as your house – it’s good to keep and have more of what makes you feel good and has a positive influence in your well being. But just adding things that make you feel good to a cluttered home – like adding good nutrition without clearing the old won’t be as helpful. In fact, you will end up spending more money and time on trying to feel good but your body won’t fully benefit without the declutter and clearing first.
You need to create a space – you need to unclog the clogged and then start rebuilding this microbiome inside you. There are various tests you can carry out to see what bacteria is living inside your gut – this will help identify the good from the bad and surprise you as to how much it relates to how you feel in your day to day life. Once armed with this knowledge you can begin to declutter and build a gut biome with good strength bacterias sourced from sauerkraut, kefir and the like that will play a part with your health, moods, weight and overall wellbeing.
So what now?
Gut health is an area of study has exploded in the past decade, and has started to revolutionize the way medicine views and treats the human body. As the research continues, it will be fascinating to discover the answers to questions, such as, does the way we think about our food affect how well we digest it? If we eat healthy, does the good feeling that accompanies it, affect the microbe population in our gut, giving our food an even bigger nutritional advantage? And vice versa when we eat foods that we know are not healthy for our bodies?
Mayer E, “The Mind-Gut Connection”, 2016, Harper Collins Books, New York, NY.