Your Microbial Self: What Does Your Gut Tell You?

When most people think of bacteria within your body, what comes to their mind are these nasty unfriendly creatures that cause certain diseases and make them sick. However, that is true only to a certain extent and does not apply to all species of bacteria. Research has actually determined that there are trillions of beneficial bacteria inside our body that help us in performing life-sustaining functions at all times. These good bacteria indeed make up our internal ecosystem that we call the ‘microbiome’.

The microbiome inhabits everything from our skin and genitals, to our mouths and eyes, and a vast majority of them reside in our intestines and are known as our ‘gut microbiota’. The total number of genes represented by our microbiome likely exceeds the number of our human genes by at least two orders of magnitude! Appropriately so, we are but an amalgamation of our human selves and our ‘microbial selves’.

These diverse organisms in our microbiome govern nearly every function in the human body. Traditionally, it was thought that the gut microbiota effects are limited to the host’s digestive tract but more recent research has proven that the effects of the microbiome on our health are far-reaching, hence making it vital for our survival. You can think of the microbiome as an intricate web that connects to virtually all processes in our body. The current scientific literature is indeed flooded with evidence unraveling the connection of the gut microbiota with cancer, metabolism, immune status, and indeed mental health.

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Scientists use mice without any microbiome referred to as “sterile mice” to study how the lack of a microbiome or selective dosing with particular bacteria alters the metabolism, the immune system and brain function. The notion that gut microbiome affects immune responses is specially illustrated in germ-free mice. These mice are especially unhealthy and have underdeveloped immune systems, and frequently suffer from autoimmune diseases.

An important consequence of these findings is that the initial gut microbiome of an infant can have a lasting effect on his or her health.  Scientists have compared babies delivered by C-section, where the newborn is colonizing the mother’s skin microbiome and babies delivered vaginally, where the newborn is colonizing the mother’s vaginal and gut biomes. Those delivered by C-section have a greater likelihood of developing allergies and obesity than those delivered vaginally.

Apart from the role of the gut microbiome in immunity, more recently burgeoning number of studies have begin exploring the connection between gut microbiome and the brain, also termed the gut-brain axis. These studies actually have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about mental and emotional well-being. Recent studies have suggested that our gut bacteria meticulously manufacture substances like neurotransmitters (including serotonin); enzymes and vitamins (notably Bs and K) and other essential nutrients (including important amino acid and short-chain fatty acids); that help the gut communicate with the brain and affect our memory, thought patterns and reasoning. Digestive disorders and bad gut health have been invariably connected to depression, autism, and other cognitive disorders.

Meanwhile in a very striking study, scientists at McMaster University in Ontario show a drastic change in mice behavior based on their microbiota. They discovered that if they colonized the intestines of germ-free mice with bacteria taken from the intestines of another mouse strain, the recipient animals would take on aspects of the donor’s personality. Naturally timid mice would become more outgoing and exploratory whereas more risk taking mice would become anxious and timid. These behavioral tendencies suggested that microbial interactions with the brain play a crucial role in anxiety-like and mood disorders.

Simply put, it all truly lies in your Gut! Do you want to know how to change your mood, your immunity, mental and emotional well-being? The answer might not be too complicated, it might turn out to be all connected to your gut microbiome.

By now you must be wondering what shapes our microbiome? Our first exposure via the birth canal, followed by the consumption of mother’s milk, is nature’s way of establishing the foundation on which we will build our microbiome. Dietary, and environmental exposure throughout our developing years play an important role in shaping our microbiome. Previous studies have already found differences in the gut microbiota of lean and obese adults. There is also evidence that the typical high-calorie diet rich in sugar, meats and processed foods may adversely affect the balance of microbes in the gut. A diet more heavily based on plants i.e. fruits and vegetables may result in a microbiome containing a wider range of bacterial species that are good for our overall health. A new study in people suggests that you can actually change your diet to enrich your microbiome.

As the old adage says: You become what you eat, it is your diet perhaps that plays a big part in establishing gut health and supporting your microbiome’s good bacteria. Based on all this scientific evidence, shifting focus to a plant based diet is more preferable compared to a diet based on meats and processed food. It is a striking idea that one of the keys to overall good health is a good digestive system.

The notion that the state of our gut governs our state of mind dates back more than 100 years. We don’t know a lot yet, but we probably know enough to begin taking better care of it. The phrase “gut feeling” might have a deeper wisdom to offer, so understand your gut and befriend your microbial self.

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mitali-adlakha

Mitali Adlakha

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.

1 Comment

  1. Sachin

    Brilliant article. I hope everyone gets help on importance of good bacteria in gut health and immune system.