I’m sure by now you have heard a lot about the gut microbiome and its role in health and disease. But have you ever wondered why it is so important and what exactly is its role?
Unfortunately, I can’t answer all those questions as research into the gut microbiome is relatively new and there is still so much we don’t know about it. However, here is a basic introduction to the wonderful world of your microbiome. If you have time and really want to delve deeply into the microbiome, then I suggest you read the work of Emeran Mayer.
What is the gut microbiome?
The gut microbiome is the community of microorganisms that inhabits your gut as well as their combined genetic material. These microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa and are also called the ‘microbiota’ or ‘gut flora’.
The gut microbiome is often referred to as the ‘second brain’ because it is so influential on your body, mind and emotions.
“Your gut has capabilities that surpass all your other organs and even rival your brain. It has its own nervous system, known in scientific literature as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and often referred to in the media as the 'second brain.' This second brain is made up of 50-100 million nerve cells, as many as are contained in your spinal cord." Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection
Image source: Alicia Harper from pixabay.
Functions of the gut microbiome
The microorganisms in your gut have many functions that are integral to your health and wellbeing. For example,
"The immune cells residing in your gut make up the largest component of your body’s immune system; in other words, there are more immune cells living in the wall of your gut than circulating in the blood or residing in your bone marrow." Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection
So let’s take a quick look at some of these functions:
Chemicals released by your microbiome influence the vagus nerve. This is the main nerve that runs between your brain and abdomen. In other words – it is very important!
Your microbiome produces many compounds vital to your health. These include:
Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is necessary for higher brain functions such as thinking and learning as well as for the development of new neural connections
Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) which helps you cope with stress and anxiety
Serotonin which, in addition to being central to your happiness and wellbeing, also plays a role in cognition, learning and memory
Glutamate which is another compound vital for cognition, memory and learning.
Vitamin B12 which has numerous roles in keeping your nerve and blood cells healthy.
Your microbiome plays a central role in helping to control your blood sugar levels as well as the hormones that control your appetite.
Your gut microbes are the “gate keepers” to the tight junctions located between your intestinal cells. It is these tiny microorganisms that play a central role in increased gut permeability (leaky gut) and inflammation.
Your gut microbes process and detoxify dangerous chemicals that you may have ingested with your food and also constantly interact with millions of immune cells lining your gut, protecting you from infections and regulating inflammation.
Your gut microbes digest and ferment compounds that your digestive system can’t handle itself. They break these compounds down into smaller molecules so that they can be absorbed into the blood stream. One such compound that they ferment is polyphenols which are highly anti-inflammatory. Luckily they are found in delicious things such as coffee, red wine and dark chocolate.
Your gut bacteria are also great ‘regulators’, regulating:
the absorption of nutrients
Listed above are only a few examples of how the microorganisms inhabiting our gut keep us healthy and well. What we need to remember is that if we want our microbiome to look after us, we need to look after it and an easy way to start looking after your microbiome is by including more probiotic foods in your diet. I talk more about probiotics and food sources of them in my blogs on gut health.
“It’s okay to ask what your microbiome can do for you, but much better to ask what you can do for your microbiome.” Prescott & Logan, The Secret Life of Your Microbiome