By: Sahar Maleki

Feeling awful? Your gut may have a lot to do with that! Think all bacteria cause disease? You might be surprised to find out that our bodies are teeming with billions of bacteria, necessary for our health. The most important ones, the gut microbiome, thrive in the intestines.

Even before birth, bacteria play an important role in our lives. Research has shown that the neural connections in the brain of a mouse offspring are influenced by the mother’s gut microbes. While human beings differ from mice, the significant role of the gut bacteria in managing overall health, is undeniable. In fact, much of what makes us human, resides in our guts, as our gut bacteria influence the unique way our genes are expressed.

Healthy gut bacteria are essential to our physical well-being. They strengthen the immune system, lower inflammation, control weight and lower the risk of diseases such as diabetes. Indeed, scientists have shown that a change in certain bacteria strains may trigger adverse immune responses, resulting in illness. Notably, researchers have emphasized the importance of healthy gut bacteria in the prevention of the number one global cause of death, cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, healthy gut bacteria aid in processes such as memory, learning and balancing our mood. Our guts and brains communicate by producing a variety of neurochemicals, imperative to regulating bodily functions, and sending them to the brainstem through the vagus nerve. For instance, serotonin, the happiness hormone, is produced predominantly in the gut. Research suggests that people with psychological disorders have different species of gut bacteria and an imbalance in the gut microbes seems to even play a role in the onset of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by aiding the development of plaques in the brain.

So, how do we promote the growth of friendly bacteria? The good news is that the gut bacteria can be easily manipulated through lifestyle changes and a healthy diet, consisting of a variety of plant-based foods, whole grains, limited artificial sweeteners and sugar, as well as pre and probiotics (bananas, yogurt, fermented foods, …). Additionally, scientists have experimented with the idea of treating some diseases by transferring fecal matter from healthy individuals to the gastrointestinal track of patients. For instance, research published in Cell Metabolism outlines the successful reversal of type 2 diabetes in some patients through the use of fecal transplants by scientists in Amsterdam.

Considering the growing interest in the role of microflora in health and disease, scientists hope to investigate the various strains of gut bacteria through the Human Microbiome Project. Will we be able to eradicate all disease by focusing on gut health? Maybe not entirely, as most diseases require a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. However, treating the gut bacteria seems to be essential for a healthy body and mind.