Gut Microbiome 101
Here's a quick primer just to get you familiar with the microbiome and its impact on our health.
Let's dive into the fascinating world of the gut microbiome! This lively community of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, plays a crucial role in maintaining our overall health and well-being. Your gut bacteria can be especially good friends.
Think of your gut bacteria as your army of superheroes, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption. They break down complex carbohydrates and fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which serve as an energy source for the body. They also produce enzymes that help to break down proteins and fats, allowing us to get the most out of our food.
But their superhero abilities don't stop there. Gut bacteria are also responsible for regulating body systems and helping to prevent many diseases. However, when we have the wrong types or amounts of bacteria in our gut, we are at greater risk for disease and cancers of the gut, increased risk of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease, increased risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk of other, non-gut, cancers. Having the right kind and amounts of gut bacteria decreases these risks. A healthy microbial community also helps develop our immune system and changes with us as we age.
Did you know that gut bacteria even affect our metabolism and body weight? Some bacteria are better at digesting our foods and provide us with more energy than others. Additionally, what we eat determines what type of gut bacteria we have, which can affect our body weight and composition.
The gut microbiome has far-reaching effects on our health because it interacts with the body in three major ways…
- through the immune system
- through modulation of hormones (especially estrogen!)
- by interacting with the nervous system
Inflammation is a key contributor to most diseases and can rob us of our life quality and longevity. The single most significant contributing factor to inflammation is the gut microbiome. Much of the immune system's soldiers, the immune cells, can be found at the border of our intestinal lining. Here they receive information from the gut bacteria. This information can make the immune system more or less inflammatory. Additionally, chemicals from the gut bacteria can make their way into the blood and cause immune cells and other tissues outside of the gut to react, resulting in inflammation.
Another powerful role the gut microbiome plays is to modulate hormones, especially estrogen. The liver is responsible for ridding the body of excess estrogen. It does this by taking circulating estrogen out of the blood and putting it into bile. The bile is then released into our intestines when we eat. This is how estrogen ends up in the digestive system. Some types of gut bacteria can then free the estrogen, allowing it back into circulation.
And finally, gut bacteria are capable of making chemicals that act like our own neurotransmitters used to communicate within the nervous system. The gut has its own complex nervous system, sometimes called the second brain! This gut-specific nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), can communicate with the brain through the vagus nerve. Communication is bidirectional, with the brain sending information back to the ENS. The gut bacteria make chemicals that modulate the ENS, and this changes the information it sends to the brain. Different types of bacteria can affect the brain differently since they differ in their abilities to make neuromodulatory chemicals.
Fantastic stuff, right? And what all of this comes down to is whether we have the right types of bacteria living in our guts and doing good things for us. Having the "good" bacteria can help decrease inflammation, balance our estrogen levels, and feed our brains good thoughts!
Now that you've made it through Gut Microbiome 101, it's time to head over to the next module, where I'll reveal the number one mistake you're probably making that's undermining your health.