Health & Fitness

Listen to your gut – it’s in control of more than you think

We all have an average of about three pounds of bacteria living in our gut. Let me repeat that: three pounds of bacteria living in a "natural rainforest" in our intestines.

You may have seen bottles of kombucha popping up in more grocery stores or heard people talking about the importance of your gut. What in the world are they talking about? What is gut flora or a microbiome or what some refer to as an internal garden? And why should you care?

We all have an average of about three pounds of bacteria living in our gut. Let me repeat that: three pounds of bacteria living in a “natural rainforest” in our intestines. That’s your gut microbiota. And this large community, consisting of hundreds of trillions of happy single cell citizens, does more than just break down fibrous foods for you.

The bacteria living silently inside you are actually producing neurochemicals. Neurochemicals, like seratonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, affect how we react to external stimuli, relationships, and more. The microbiome and the brain are directly connected. 

The bacteria living in your gut are producing neurochemicals. Click To Tweet

Our gut flora also determine how we store fat, control hormonal responses which dictate our hunger, and balance our blood sugar levels. They also affect our allergies, metabolism, and cravings. Yes, these are some powerful little critters.

For those who struggle with anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues associated with autism, changes in gut bacteria may help control symptoms. Experiments conducted on mice with anxiety or isolation issues, and/or with repetitive behaviors, saw changes in their symptoms. They became less anxious, communicated more with other mice, and stopped most repetitive behaviors. This is a noteworthy breakthrough in studying the causes and remedies for people on the spectrum. 

In order to perform their main function, breaking down the foods we ingest, the specific types of bacteria change based on what we eat. That is one of the ways they control our cravings – if we have been eating a lot of fried food, for example, the bacteria that eat those ingredients will be hungry for them. They then send out signals to your brain telling it to find more of those ingredients. Therefore, in order to change your cravings, you have to learn to ignore those bacteria in order to foster different bacteria to grow. It’s true, with time, you can in fact crave healthy foods. If you learn to ignore the nefarious bacteria that have invaded your gut because they were once required to break down the processed food you put in your body. They will eventually go away if you ignore them. More robust and diverse bacteria will replace them and you will feel increasingly better each day.

Choosing diverse whole foods helps nurture a healthy gut biota

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Because these bacteria are such big players in our everyday chemical composition, it is vital that we care for our guts.

A healthy gut means a diverse gut. Think of all the different kinds of bacteria that are living in there – they all have a specific job, to break down a certain kind of food. We need to have all the “vacant jobs” for breaking down foods filled by diverse microbes, otherwise we won’t be able to break down healthy foods for energy. Cultivating a diverse gut means eating a diverse diet.

Like a garden, taking care of your gut flora means weeding out the bad and fostering the good. Simple ways to do this include cutting out processed foods and incorporating more whole foods and healthy fats into your diet. The bacteria that are in charge of breaking down healthy foods and a diverse diet contribute to a balanced hormonal system, in turn affecting your energy levels, and even your body composition.

Diverse diet means healthy gut bacteria

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Whatever you do, don’t listen to the hype about “fecal transplants.” Ick. A fecal transplant is placing the feces of someone with healthy gut biota into your lower intestine to encourage the growth of diverse bacteria in your gut. It is a procedure that is very high risk and has little proven chance of being effective. Just change your diet and stick to it, knowing that you’re not only helping your body, but actually helping the health of your mind by moderating the way your body responds to hormones. Shortcuts are never the answer. Plus…fecal transplants are just gross.

Our mood can be regulated by our diet. Click To Tweet

We all like to believe that we are in control, but there are many external and internal forces at play when it comes to our health and well-being. Our mood, for one, is not just dependent on how many bullies we’ve encountered that day, or our genetic disposition. It can be regulated by our diet and the composition of our intestinal rainforest. Be kind to your gut, by feeding it with probiotics and healthy diverse foods, staying active, shutting out stress as much as possible, and your gut will reward you. And, you will in turn thank your gut.

Trillions upon trillions of little swimming bacteria may not sound appetizing or even real, but they’re there inside your tummy working hard to break down your food. Bacteria control more than we think about our mood, weight, and energy, which means they deserve our attention. Feed them well and they will return the favor tenfold.

Perry Hodgkins Jones

Perry Hodgkins Jones

Editorial Fellow Perry Hodgkins Jones is a published writer, environmental advocate, and non-profit worker with a Master's in Theology and the Environment from Sewanee.

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