Win the Battle of the Bulge
It’s high time we make peace with our gut bacteria. We can no longer afford to take these little critters for granted, let alone ignore them or abuse them. Exciting, rapidly emerging science tells us that as the health of our gut bacteria go—so goes our own health. While scientists have long been aware that our guts are colonized by a diverse array of microbes, we’ve only recently begun to fully appreciate the implications of this.
By now you’ve probably heard that our gut bacteria outnumber our own bodies’ cells by about ten-to-one. They are an integral part of us, for better or worse. I don’t know about you, but I choose better, if there are choices to be made. And make no mistake: you do have choices that can influence the health of your gut microbiome.
How, you ask? The mixture of diverse species of bacteria living in the gut—called the gut microbiome—plays important roles in your health and well being. Studies show that differences in the makeup of the microbiome may influence everything from mood, to the tendency to gain weight, to the robustness of the immune system.
As it turns out, the kinds of bacteria that seem to be most beneficial to us tend to thrive on—you guessed it—plant foods. They love indigestible fiber from vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Conversely, bacteria tentatively linked to a greater tendency to become obese favor simple carbohydrates, such as sugar. Emerging evidence suggests that certain bacteria can actually influence your brain, making you more likely to choose their preferred foods. They do this by stimulating cravings, or altering your mood. They may even communicate directly with the brain, by way of the vagus nerve.
You may be influenced to choose fatty/sweet foods more often because the mixture of bacteria in your gut made you crave these foods. This knowledge provides some simple strategies for maintaining optimal health by encouraging a healthy gut microbiome. Among other things, this means avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, taking probiotics after any course of antibiotics, or other illness, and eating plant foods that supply indigestible fiber (prebiotics), to encourage beneficial gut bacteria and discourage sugar-loving, obesity-inducing bacteria.
“Targeting the microbiome could open up possibilities for preventing a variety of disease[s] from obesity and diabetes to cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the importance of the microbiome for human health,” said researcher, Athena Aktipis, PhD.
Joe Alcock, Carlo C. Maley, C. Athena Aktipis. Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. BioEssays, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/bies.201400071