I Feel It in My Fingers, I Feel It in MY GUT!
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
A few weeks back, we promised to get a bit serious with the whole ‘Gut Health’ topic and explore the reasons for so much hype about the gut both in the world of research and in social media. This here today is our small contribution to the discussion on Gut-to-Health correlations and our oh-so-very-very-important microbiome. In a way, it connects to some of our earlier posts on food choices and health, though this piece amps the research bit quite a notch!
But, wait. You’ve never heard the word 'microbiome' before??? Then get ready, cause this particular term is about to explode.
As most of you know, we’re in the midst of the largest mass extinction of species in the last 60 years. The gigantic, unstoppable fires burning in Australia for the past few weeks are just the tip of the iceberg, with statistics telling us already that 40% of all bird species worldwide are in decline, that ⅓ of all world amphibians known are at risk, that 50% of the corals in the Great Barrier have died, and that in the last 500 years alone, 1000 animal species have gone extinct, with 68% of all known plants are in danger of disappearing.
Diversity, biodiversity, should be a key concern for all of us at this point, as well as for the future of the world as we know it. Still, the biodiversity of our planet does not end at the level of the 'macro' or the easily visible. Microbial life on earth, a life that started long before we humans were even a thing, is also changing –particularly when it comes to the microbial life existing inside of us. Because, though it may come as a bit of a surprise to many, we humans are not just human. We are other things too. For starters, we are also the more than 38 Trillion microorganisms living inside of us, microorganisms that constitute 50% of our total cell count and whose genes contribute to what is now being called ‘the microbiome’ (MCB).
Micro but Powerful
As noted before, microbes have witnessed 85% of world history. We humans don’t even make it long enough to be of actual importance when it comes to these type of statistics. The reality is that there has never been a time where our human bodies existed without these little, tiny microscopic creatures within them. We receive signals from them that are fundamental to our survival. And so, though we tend to think of ourselves as entirely autonomous, free-spirited creatures, the reality is a bit different and we are way more codependent on our environments and everything that exists in them than we care to believe. So it's fair to say that we have co-evolved with the microbes in our surroundings and, as a result of this, we are fundamentally (and foundationally) geared to connect to (and depend upon) them.
Microbial life was first observed in the 1670s thanks to the development of the microscope and, until relatively recently, we had a sort of fearsome approach to microbes, partly because of the discovery of the bacteria involved in some of history’s worst epidemias –tuberculosis, cholera, the black plague… Mentioning the word bacteria, then, has brought a negative image to our minds for quite some time, an image that has led not only to an over-preoccupation with cleanliness and hygiene that has begun to deplete specific environments of previously harmless bacteria, but also to the development of plague-resistant crops, pesticides, herbicides... Some of it is reasonable, some of it is not.
Still, believe it or not, 99,9% of the bacteria out there are good, helping us with key physiological processes like digestion, metabolic processing, or optimal immune function. And so, the hype about the importance of microbes, the gut, and the microbiome is not only real but founded.
The MCB is the fancy name given to all the genetic material of the microbes living inside of our bodies –which can weigh up to 2.5 kilos, which is as much as the brain weighs itself. These microbes are things like bacteria, viruses, protozoa, or fungi, the majority of which live in our gut (particularly in the colon, though also in the small intestine). The microbes in our MCB are key to our body’s reaction to phenomena inside and outside of itself and, like our genome, are entirely and uniquely ours. This means that while we share 99,9% of our genes with one another, we only share about 20% of our microbes with anyone else. Even identical twins have largely differing MCBs.
We get our first microbes from our mothers –through the process of natural birth, skin to skin contact, and breastfeeding– and then spend our first three years of life building up our own unique microbial footprint, one that will keep on changing and developing inside of us with exposure to our differing environments.
These first microbes we get from our mother are key to our biological development. They take over our gastrointestinal system and then train our immune system to identify harmful viruses and pathogens, essentially becoming a part of our immune reaction. As we grow, however, our MCB changes too mainly because of environment and lifestyle; which makes it easy to understand why figuring out what types of microbes are naturally present in our guts, the jobs they perform, how they change when exposed to different foods and environments, in which proportions they’re present, and what specific strains there are is so important. Because scientists now believe that the microbes in our gut are behind many of the health-promoting, but also disease-promoting processes we experience in the different stages of our life.
Gut Health and Tiny Little Microbes
Research has shown that each of the microbes in our MCB performs a function. They all release specific chemicals and enzymes that help with breaking down food into essential nutrients, hormones, and substances we all need to adequately function. Indeed, scientists now know, for example, that many of these microbes produce healthy chemicals that can make us feel ‘happy’ or ‘sad,’ or else help our immune system keep up the guard.
Microbia feed off of what we eat to a large extent. In fact, researchers such as Prof. Tim Spector note that there are some foods capable of arriving deep into our digestive system and thus to our MCB, and others not so much. Fats or refined carbs, for example, don’t really make it far enough to reach our little friends, but starchy vegetables and complex foods have been proven to do so. This is the stuff that fires them up!
When you think of it, food intake is quite a complex behavior. Though we tend to think of it as an 'up-down process' –as in our head sending the message ‘eat now’ to the rest of the body– the opposite is more often the case. Food intake is actually driven by signals from the gut to the brain that basically tell us to “Hey, we’re hungry over here. Eat now!” To make this possible, hormones participate in the regulation of our appetite. And this is the reason why scientists are so curious about exploring the ways in which the once ‘almighty role of the brain’ as judge and director of everything that happens everywhere else may not be so very almighty after all. The study of the (diet-microbia) Gut-Brain Axis fits right into this endeavor.
Gut-Brain Axis, Health and the MCB
As science seems to be relaying, gut health is in part dependent on the quality of the communication between the microorganisms in our gut and our brain –in fact, on the quality of the microorganisms in our gut themselves! When we are hungry, our guts send certain signals to our brain, signals that may make us run to the fridge for specific types of food over others, at particular hours, because of specific feelings as well.
Researchers such as Prof. John Cryan, believe that depending on the type of strains of microbes present in our MCB we may show a preference for particular types of foods and flavors over others –even for particular types of feelings over others as well. And so, depression is now been studied as a potential microbiome disorder, as are other diseases of the gastrointestinal system such as Leaky Gut or IBS. Some scholars are even now speaking of novel drug-microbe combinations in the form of so-called psychobiotics.
This basically comes to ratify once again the importance of what we eat. The foods we eat, as noted earlier, release certain chemicals that, once digested, may impact our health in positive or negative ways. Contemporary research, then, is aiming to determine whether there is any direct correlation between what we eat, how we feel, how we think, and our actions –all of this with pretty optimistic results.
How to Help Our Microbiome?
What researchers seem to have uncovered already, however, is a direct positive correlation between certain types of food and habits over others. Among these, the following are the most important:
1. Increase the diversity of what you eat by eating as diverse a spectrum of foods as possible, particularly things like plants, vegetables, and fiber-rich foods (whole grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, unsalted nuts). Remember, different microbes feed off different products, and so, a less diverse diet will lessen the diversity of your microbiome and eliminate many of the positive jobs they perform for you!
2. Exercise. It helps purify our livers from unwanted waste products and our hearts stay young and limber.
3. Consume more fermented foods, probiotics (good bacteria), and prebiotics (things like Omega3 fatty acids, polyphenol) for they’re the type of food our ‘little gut friends’ like the most.
4. Breastfeed your baby if that’s an option for you and avoid having a C-section if you have a choice. Natural birth and breastfeeding are two of the ways we first acquire our microbes, after all, and are believed to be the reason of the surfacing of so many food allergies and intolerances of late.
5. Sleep well and enough.
6. It seems that following a proper Mediterranean Diet may partly help all this.
On the list of things to avoid, scholars not:
1. Avoid eating the same foods over and over again. In the past few decades we have come down to consuming only 5 different types of animals and 12 types of crops, but this wasn’t always so! As noted earlier, diversity is key.
2. Avoid eating processed foods and artificial sweeteners. You know they’re not good for health, and now science is saying they’re also not good for the microbes down there.
3. Avoid things like emulsifiers. If you’re unsure about what an emulsifier is, it’s the kind of ‘artificial glue’ that holds many processed foods together present in things like packaged cookies, commercial ketchup, some forms of commercial tofu, or even the type of pre-packaged burgers and meats we often consume.
4. Avoid taking antibiotics if possible, particularly during early childhood. They’re one of the most microbiome-depleting medicines out there. In fact, 25% of all prescribed drugs have a negative impact on our MCB.