Have you caught the success bug?
Recent research is beginning to uncover the amazing role that the bacteria with which we share life, play in our health, happiness and success. They form what is called the microbiome…
We share our existence with trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms. These bugs are known as: commensals, meaning they share the table – our food – and symbiotic, meaning that they provide something constructive towards our existence in return. These microorganisims are essential to healthy living both physically and mentally.
We have the five sensory capabilities sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. The millions of nerve endings in each of these senses protect us from danger. As with everything good in nature they reward us with pleasure also. There is one other sensory organ which is seldom considered but is of equal importance in protecting us and in providing pleasure.
The digestive tract from mouth to the end is in reality an area outside the body. Its walls form a barrier which is protected by what is called the Enteric Nervous System, the ENS. Messages passing to and from this complex organ via the vagus nerve in particular to the brain. But even in the absence of the vagus it continues to function.
The second brain:
There are so many nerve endings along the digestive tract that it has been referred to as the second brain which regulates the body’s nourishment needs. But there is another surprising component to the function of this part of the body.
The surprising role of bacteria:
The resent area attracting interest in research is of the bacteria which inhabit the gut and, intriguingly, which play a very important role in our lives. This collection of bugs – which is not just bacteria but many other single cellular beings such as fungi and protozoa – but let us just call them bugs – form what is more correctly the Microbiome.
Collectively they weigh up to three pounds and amount to many more cells than those which form the body; many trillions of organisms, made up of up to 1000 different types.
What is fascinating to discover is the extent of the role the bugs of the microbiome play. They are an integral part of the ‘second brain’.
Serotonin and Dopamin are essential to mental wellbeing.
We are so dependent on these microorganisms because they can be stimulated by messages from the brain to produce certain essential chemicals. It is amazing to discover that 50% of dopamine and over 60% of serotonin are produced by the microbiome. These chemicals are neurotransmitters which are also made in the brain and play a significant role in motivation and happiness. For example, people with depression or compulsive conditions are treated with serotonin enhancing drugs. The ENS, triggered by the vagus nerve, stimulates bacteria of the microbiome to make these chemicals.
There are many other beneficial jobs carried out by these bugs.
- When taking an antibiotic many people find that they get diarrhoea. This is caused by the loss of essential bugs alongside the infecting one being treated. This demonstates that certain bacteria are required to retain water and electrolytes in the intestine.
- Bacteria in the lower intestine extract up to 15% of our energy from fibrous food .
Short chain Fatty acids:
- They also produce short-chain-fatty-acids SCFAs, which help to protect the lining of the intestine and resist infections. SCHAs are also essential in many aspects of metabolism helping to control blood glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, controlling cholesterol levels and resisting colon cancer.
- The microbiome bugs produce many vitamins especially of the B group and vitamin K.
- They stimulate the immune system. This is as part of the protective role against infections.
- Producing some hormones and neurotransmitters supporting the endocrine system which produces most of our hormones.
- Some of the organisms have been shown to play a role in obesity. Bacteria taken from obese mice and transplanted into the gut of normal mice cause them to become obese. The effect on weight gain happens when the balance of the microbiome is disturbed.
The new field of Psychobiotics research:
- There is increasing interest in what is called Psychobiotics which uses bacteria found in the microbiome to treat mental illnesses. These bugs are being shown to help in memory loss, depression and anxiety.
- A correlation has been found between the gut flora – the make-up of the microbiome – and bowel conditions IBS and other ulcerative conditions such as colitis and ulcers.
The role of bacteria in high performance sport:
Research is also showing that high performing athletes develop bacterial flora specific to their needs and that bacteria help in the recovery period after intense performance such as an ultra-marathon where the bacteria change in the recovery weeks to support recovery. One example being in the breakdown of lactic acid.
The role in disease:
Recent research is finding a connection between the concentration certain intestinal bugs and conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Autism and Alzheimer’s. This connection needs to be understood as to what comes first, the condition or the change in the bacterial make-up of the microbiome.
But the severity of these conditions demonstrates the profound effect that the microbiome can have on us and the need to take care of it.
Our microbiome is specific to us individually; like a fingerprint, it has been said. When it is healthy and in balance it supports wellbeing but when the balance is disturbed illness may follow.
- The organisms in our intestines act as another organ of the body.
- They produce hormones and neurotransmitters.
- They support the immune system
- They play a role in, and the prevention, of Type 2 diabetes.
- They can enhance memory.
- They salvage water and electrolytes
- Produce energy
- Manufacture essential short chain fatty acids
- Protect from infections by a number of different mechanisms.
- Help to maintain the health of the wall of the intestine which is a barrier to infection.
But this can go wrong. The microbiome is complex and sensitive. It functions properly when there is a balance of all the constituent microorganisms.
What can we do about it?
- A healthy balanced diet is probably all that is required. By reading this article you will be just that bit more aware of a function of the intestines which we simply take for granted.
- Researchers recently highlighted the need for daily consumption of green vegetables. These will help to provide essential nutrients for the bugs of the microbiome.
- Prebiotics are foods which help to nourish the bugs. Fibre is a health giving component of our diet. It provides energy in the later stage of digestion and is very important in the production of SCHAs.
- Probiotics do appear to help in restoring the balance of bacteria but there is a limited to the strains of organisims which can be taken orally.
- A wide and varied diet is healthy. the recent upsurge in fast foods narrows the dietary intake and may exclude essential elements.
- Polyphenols are essential. They are found in vegetables, cocoa, nuts, red wine, and a variety of other foods. They do not need to be taken as a supplement to a healthy diet. They play a role in our immune system, as antioxidants and may help in cancer prevention. They are also attributed as helping in other neurodegenerative conditions.
- The Mediterranean diet is found to include many good foods by default.
- Natural yogurts provide probiotics.
- Proteins are an essential component of any healthy diet. But for the last 50 years antibiotics have been used to help fatten animals. These may find their way into our food but even if the antibiotic itself does not enter the food chain it will affect the bacteria which would naturally enter otherwise.
The bugs like to sleep too!
One other recent observation is that the microorganisms of the microbiome benefit from sleep once again showing that if we look after them they will help us.
Stress and anxiety also affect the balance of the bugs and can lead to illness. It is said that up to 75% of illness is stress related. This new research highlights one method by which this happens.
Just being aware helps
Health, happiness and success can follow from an awareness of the role played by the intestine wall, the ENS and the Microbiome which together make up an organ of the body which plays an amazing role in our lives and over which we have the power and a duty to maintain.
For further reading of improving your life get my book The Mind Diet. Interestingly it is not about food but how to nourish your mind.
To read more about it click here ==> The Mind Diet
Also published on Medium.