Microbiota: The microscopic power behind our mental and physical health
More than once, you’ve surely had a moment of rage against someone and been told you had a rash gut reaction instead of responding with your brain. Many of us have! And, you know, that description may be factually correct. Our intestines and their contents have more power than we originally thought, especially regarding our actions, impulses, body’s defenses and health in general. Research has also revealed important information about the relevant role the gut plays in diseases like Parkinson's, cancer and even syndromes like autism (1). The good news is that we can do a lot to improve the microscopic community we have within us.
Microbiota, microbiome or intestinal flora?
Our body is a collection of millions of cells. However, that number pales in comparison to the 100 trillion microorganisms that populate our gastrointestinal system, known as microbiota. That is equal to 10 times more than the number of total cells we have! (2)
The microbiota, or human microbiome, used to be known as ‘intestinal flora’ and comprises all the microorganisms that live in our intestine, especially the large intestine, and includes bacteria, fungi, yeast, viruses and even parasites. Some positive and necessary, and some not so positive. Our general well-being depends a lot on the balance that exists between both. (3)
Physiologically, microbiota help some substances in food ferment, such as carbohydrates and fiber. Their tiny size does not even begin to reflect the enormous impact they have on our quality of life, as they support various metabolic functions and protect us against external viruses and bacteria that may attack. They also regulate our immune system. (3)
This community of microorganisms is not always constant. For example, microbiota can change during certain life processes, such as pregnancy, in moments of high stress, based on dietary consumption or the use of drugs and medicines.(4)
New studies appear daily that show the dependency of this microbiome for triggering issues such as:
Chronic inflammation of the brain, which can lead to cell death and reduced regenerative capacity, excess sensitivity and even coordination problems.
Diseases such as cancer.
Mental health impact & relationships
Perhaps the most surprising effect is microbiota’s role in the stomach-brain relationship that controls behavior. It has been proven that the microbiome regulates mood, anxiety, cognitive ability and even our tolerance to pain. (4) It has been found that microbiota’s interference is so relevant that it greatly influences the way we connect with others - and our overall mental health in general.
The work of this invisible community is so impressive, in terms of brain function, that a close relationship has been found between the health of the microbiome and symptoms of autism. In fact, according to some research, up to 70% of people with autism show gastrointestinal problems due to microbiota imbalance. (6) Therefore, improving the microbiome results in drastic behavioral changes, especially related to social interaction. (5) This is true for everyone.
What is known up until now about the functioning between the microbiota and the brain is that if our gut’s microscopic community is bad, unbalanced and overloaded with more bad bacteria than good, then our body’s ‘computer,’ the brain, is unable to make functional connections in a precise manner. Additionally, this microbe imbalance leaves our body unprotected because the bad bacteria is converted to toxins that enter our bloodstream. To defend itself, our body responds with inflammation that can become chronic, further complicating things as various illnesses are produced and our mood is destabilized, among other consequences.
What can we do about it?
For this entire microsystem to function as needed, there must be a mucous barrier in the walls of healthy intestines where harmful bacteria cannot pass through to other tissues and cause damage. There also needs to be a balance among the bacteria, with a wide spectrum of diversity. (7)(2)
How is this achieved?
By reducing, or ideally eliminating, sugar and processed foods. For certain food allergies, it is also imperative to check with a specialist and rule out products that should be avoided such as dairy, gluten, some types of vegetables or nuts.
Adding prebiotics or foods that nourish healthy intestinal flora will work together to increase positive effects on the microbiome and our health in general. Some examples are deep green vegetables, bananas, onions, garlic, artichokes and whole grains, among others. (8)
Adding probiotics, the name being derived from the Greek meaning of ‘food for life,’ containing living bacteria will help enhance microbiota. The best options are yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, microalgae and any foods containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. (9)
Consuming more fresh products that contain digestive enzymes or supplementing them to support our body’s metabolism, digestion, blood cleansing, immunity improvement and brain function. Fresh fruits such as pineapples or papaya are abundant in different enzymes such as bromelain and papain. It has also been discovered that the supplementation of pancreatic enzymes helps modify and improve microbiota, helping to strengthen the mucus of the intestinal walls and helping to absorb fats and proteins, among other things.(10)
As you can see, the integration of our systems is impressive and necessary, requiring special needs that are integral as well. Which is why creating a community of intestinal microorganisms that live together in harmony can give us a healthy quality of life, making sure the brain receives and provides the right signals and finetuning our overall health.
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