We have a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in our bodies. The 1990’s focus on sterile environments and antibacterial products was detrimental to our health. With what we know today, the next generations should encourage their kids to eat some dirt (well, maybe not literally), or at very least play in it. Let’s review what we have learned so far.
The Scoop on Gut Bacteria & Your Health
- There’s a link between gut bacteria and mental health. Research has shown that the bacteria in our gut communicates with our brain through the vagus nerve–the longest of the 12 cranial nerves which travels from the brainstem to the abdomen. Some types of bacteria help manufacture important neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation, such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA. This explains why bacteria imbalances in our gut have been linked to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
- Bacteria can reduce our stress response. The right gut bacteria can influence how we modulate our stress response. The digestive system is often described as tube, but in reality it is a lot more complex. It’s directly connected to the brain and therefore communication between the two systems works both ways. Its biome talks to our brain via the vagus nerve and our immune cells. Using MRI studies, scientists were able to show that women who ingested yogurt twice a day had lesser reactive responses in their brain when shown anxiety inducing pictures. Since it is a two way street, stress can also endanger the population of the healthy gut bacteria we harbor. Studies show that bacteria in a petri dish have smaller populations when stress related factors are introduced.
- Gut bacteria make us more social. It sounds a bit sci-fi, but scientists have found that a healthy gut flora correlates with a strong social life. The theory is that the bacteria in our gut promote social behavior for their own survival. In other words, the more we are in contact with other people the better the chance that our little gut critters will spread and thrive.
- Bacteria are part of our immune system. The intestines contain more immune cells than anywhere else in our body. Gut bacteria help us by making essential vitamins, and by breaking down hard to digest foods. In addition, scientists believe that the gut biome also communicates with the cells lining our digestive track, working together to protect their host from harmful invaders. This collaboration leads to reduced inflammation and better regulation of the immune system.
Our diets and lifestyle have a direct impact on our gut flora and therefore our health. Small changes can go a long way to helping our healthy bacteria thrive. Eating a diet rich in fiber, fresh vegetables and healthy protein is a start. Incorporating naturally occurring healthy bacteria rich foods (e.g. naturally fermented pickles or kimchi, yogurt and kefir) in our diet is another. We can also create an ideal environment for our biome by living a balanced life. This means making sleep a priority, practicing gentle exercise, meditation and yoga. I am a fan of deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing. I also find that participating in relaxing activities, such as doing art, cooking, writing, reading and going on nature walks, improve both my resilience and digestive health. All these steps will help you foster a stronger gut biome, thereby improving your mental and physical health.