You might not know they’re there, but a staggering amount of bacteria are living their lives right now in your gut. You provide a home to more bacteria than there are cells in your entire body. You may have heard about their helpful role in digestion, but would you have guessed they influence your thoughts, feelings and even food choices, too?
Your gut bacteria control you from within more than you might imagine.
Read on to discover more about the fascinating relationship between your bugs and you.
Your gut is lined with millions of nerve cells, with your gut and brain linked by a two-directional communication pathway. Most of the communication signals travel from bottom to top, in other words, gut to brain. This has led to the gut being called the ‘second brain’.
If you’ve ever had a gut reaction to something, then you may have recognised these feelings as not originating from your rational, thinking brain.
The organisms living in your gut, known as your microbiome, inhabit a complicated ecosystem inside you and live in symbiosis with you. You provide them with a home and they naturally produce chemicals beneficial for your health. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But like any ecosystem, your microbial community can become unbalanced.
Your gut bacteria produce brain messenger chemicals stimulating the receptors in your brain. These cause changes in how your brain functions and responds emotionally.
Certain types of bacteria busily make the happy neurotransmitter serotonin, while others produce dopamine, influencing pleasure, noradrenaline, the motivator and GABA, the calmer. The proportions of the chemicals produced depends on the makeup of your microbiome – and everybody’s is different.
In a survey of over a thousand people, the amount of certain types of bacteria in their guts was correlated with reported quality of life. In contrast, the absence of other strains of bacteria was linked with depression. Studies in animals found a specific species of gut bacteria associated with sociability because these bacteria affect the production of oxytocin, a hormone regulating how you interact with others.
Some medicines disturb the gut’s ecosystem and these often have psychological side effects like mood swings and depression. Many people with IBS, connected with an unbalanced microbiome, also suffer from mood or anxiety disorders.
On the other hand, volunteers who consumed a fermented milk product rich in beneficial bacteria for only four weeks had calmer brains when asked to perform a task requiring emotional attention. The brain areas affected were those controlling the processing of moods and sensations.
So it seems the tiny single-celled organisms in your gut can profoundly affect your emotions and behaviour.
Microbes constantly compete with each other for a position in their ecosystem, with different bacteria needing different types of nutrients to thrive. It seems they don’t sit there passively hoping you’ll eat the food they prefer. Research suggests they’re able to influence your food choices, meaning they’re fed the food they like.
This means if you don’t have a healthy microbiome, rogue bacteria will send out strong messages to encourage you to eat what they want. They like to feast on sugar, to the detriment of your healthy bacteria. So, if you suffer from cravings, it’s probably your gut bacteria asserting themselves.
While science doesn’t know exactly how the devious microbes do this, it makes sense they would have developed such techniques to survive. It’s likely to be down to the messenger substances released by the bacteria influencing all those nerves inside the gut. These nerves feed into the vagus nerve which then travels to your brain. Alterations in these signals create chemical rewards to make you feel good, bad, hungry, cause cravings and even change your perception of taste.
One example is the discovery chocolate-craving people had different substances in their urine produced by microbes than those who didn’t crave chocolate.
But if you have lots of different bacteria in your microbiome, you won’t have certain species dominating and manipulating you in ways you don’t want, because the whole ecosystem will keep itself in check.
You don’t have to surrender to your gut bacteria. Change the bacteria and your cravings will subside.
You can influence the health of your internal ecosystem by feeding it food beneficial bacteria like – plant fibre – and not overdosing with what they don’t like – refined sugar. Adopting healthy habits such as stress relief and exercise can help balance your microbiome, too.
If you’d like to maximise your microbiome for optimal mental and physical health, you’re in the right place because food choices and lifestyle strategies are very effective at promoting a healthy microbiome. Functional testing can reveal whether your microbiome is out of balance by looking at the specific bacteria in your stool as well as the messenger substances they’re producing to build up a picture of the health of your bacterial ecosystem.
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