The Gut Universe - Some Surprising Reasons To Pay Attention to Your Guts

Did you know that right now there are about 100 trillion microbes on and in you?  (To put that into perspective, that’s 10 times more cells than you are made up of)

Did you know that their genetic material (the blueprint of how organisms are made) outnumbers yours by about 100 to 1?

What are they and should you care?  Short answer? Yes.

You are a walking ecosystem – just like a rain forest or a coral reef.  There has to be balance in these systems for them to flourish and thrive. Every organism has a job in those systems, from the massive bird eating spider to the cute pint sized pigmy possum. If there is too many of one species (no matter how cute), and not another of another (no matter how scary), the whole ecosystem is changed.  Wipe out an entire species and the ecosystem could slowly wither and die.  Introduce something foreign to the ecosystem (like pollution) and the ecosystem struggles to maintain its health.

We are just the same.

Human microbiota is the name that is used for all the microbes (or organisms/ bacteria) that exist in and on our body.  The name microbiome is used to describe these microbiota and the genetic material that they contain. 

Advances in research technology is allowing us to finally discover what our microbiota do for us and the list is long, hugely impressive and growing month by month.  It has been shown that the microbiota that inhabit our gastrointestinal system in particular are partly or wholly responsible for;

  •  Break down of food
  • Assimilating vitamins and converting vitamins for use in the body
  • Repair of the gastrointestinal lining - really important as this is one of the things that stops virus’ and other pathogens from moving from our gut into our bloodstream.
  • Inflammation of our gut if there is an abundance of less beneficial microbes
  • Our cells communicating with each other for function – like a messenger.
  • Creating neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin and dopamine – these help us feel good, in control and activate our reward centre in our brain.
  • Hormones that stimulate our appetite (side note – researchers have transplanted gut bacteria from obese mice into lean mice and the lean mice become obese.  They then transferred bacteria from lean mice into obese mice and they became lean. Makes you think hey?)
  • Our immune system responses – they coordinate with our immune system to mount attacks on foreign virus’ and pathogens.

Research is linking our less beneficial gut microbes to everything from coronary heart diseases, auto immune diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity and depression and anxiety. In fact faecal transplants (yes, someone else’s poo) have been successful at treating serious inflammatory bowel disease in people because it is transplanting their microbiota (and yes, there is a very strict cleaning process involved!).  It is being seriously considered as a future treatment for some mental health issues.

Recent research has also shown that microbes communicate directly to our nervous system and our brain. Based on this finding, some researchers have even hypothesised that sugar cravings may be a result of less beneficial bacteria communicating with the brain in an attempt to feed them with the food that they flourish on which is highly processed foods. Slightly unnerving, isn’t it!

Where we live and our lifestyle can have a profound effect on our gut microbes.  Studies have shown that people in the country have greater diversity of microbes than people in the city; people who have pets have greater diversity than those that don’t; people from the same family have similar microbes and people from different cultures have almost completely different microbes.

Lots to take in, isn't it!?  Stay tuned next week, where we show you how to keep some balance...

Gut healthEmily Banks