The Ecosystem of our Health and Mood

This article was written by me,  published in the September M2 Woman magazine.

………

THE WORLD HAS GONE WILD OVER THE IMPORTANCE OF GUT HEALTH, ESPECIALLY NOW WE CAN SEE THE VAST INFLUENCE IT HAS ON OUR OVERALL WELL-BEING.

Traditionally, when it comes to discussing the topic, ‘beneficial bacteria’ and probiotics have been in vogue. However, with new research comes a whole refreshed appreciation for the gut ecosystem, including the role of fungi and importance of prebiotics.

Your gut has a nonchalant way of influencing, for the better or worse, your health and mood.

As we continue to learn of its revered power, through scientific research, we are able to further understand just how complex the gut ecosystem is and the ways in which we can improve our diet, ideally to achieve peak health.

Your gut has a nonchalant way of influencing, for the better or worse, your health and mood. As we continue to learn of its revered power, through scientific research, we are able to further understand just how complex the gut ecosystem is and the ways in which we can improve our diet, ideally to achieve peak health.

Your gut microbiome (bacteria, fungi and viruses) is your top advocate in communicating with the brain what your body needs. This occurs in many ways, such as the vagus nerve which connects the brain and gut, metabolites (products of metabolism) coming from your microbiome (beneficial bacteria), and also through your immune system.

Interestingly, your gut is quite the chatterbox in its communication with the brain. As it turns out, 90 percent of the fibers in the vagus nerve carry information upwards towards the brain, not the other way around. Kudos to the overtime your microbiome must be doing, always being on call to guide your brain.

Your trusty microbiome regulates your appetite right through to having an influence on your emotional state. In fact, 90 percent of the body’s natural mood-enhancing chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine is produced in your gut. No wonder scientists suggest that we should view our microbiome as an organ in its own right.

The role your gut microbiome plays in influencing your health has traditionally focused on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria. It’s not until recently that cutting-edge research has started to take into account gut fungus. While scientists are not yet clear on the number of fungal cells in and on our bodies, some studies estimate it to be a ratio of bacterial cells outnumbering fungi by 1, 000: one.

Associate Professor in the Department of paediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Cheryl Gale, explains that the role of fungi in relation to the gut has been largely neglected in the research community. She explains that by studying ‘beneficial bacteria’ as an isolated subject without considering fungi in your gut ecosystem, we fail to understand the effects of dietary change. “Not only are we affecting the community of fungi with dietary change but we also see that relationships between fungi and bacteria are changing,” Gale says. “We really need to be looking at all the microbes and how they are interacting with each other to get a full picture of the microbiome structure and its function in a given individual,” she says.

The complexities of the your microbiome can easily lead you to believe that it is some sort of cosmos with everything floating around in its own little ecosystem. On the contrary, most of the bacteria and fungi have developed cooperative, evolutionary strategies, cumulating the development of digestive plaque to mindfully line intestinal walls. This plaque is elemental in breaking down food so that your body can effectively consume the nutrients to influence your mood and physical wellbeing, ideally for the better.

By improving your gut Microbiome, you could potentially discover that seemingly unrelated health issues begin to mend. UK Doctor and registered nutritionist, Will Hawkins, explains that even neurologists and psychiatrists are all looking at gut-focused treatments for a range of conditions that were previously thought not to be related. “Even critical-care specialists, who work in intensive care, are getting involved in how we can implement strategies around gut health for some of the sickest patients,” he says.

Where antibiotics have traditionally been the ‘go to’ solution for any illness, in many cases now, it is becoming increasingly popular to have them as the last resort. This is not to dispute their necessity in some cases, however, there is a plethora of evidence showing they cause more destruction to your much-needed, gut microbiome than they do remedy. New Zealand Doctor and Owner of Dr Wellness, Tracy Chandler, explains that the impact antibiotics have on your gut microbiome is detrimental. “Antibiotics don’t just kill the ‘bad’ bugs, they also kill all your good bugs. This subsequently gives ‘bad’ bugs more of a chance to get in and cause problems, a condition known as dysbiosis (an imbalance of good to bad bugs). Antibiotic resistance to the antibiotic used (as well as antibiotics not used) can also occur. These harmful effects of antibiotics can go on for many years (not just weeks). That’s why people on antibiotics are more likely to get another infection or dysbiosis. And it’s not just antibiotics from your well-meaning GP that can upset your microbiome,” Dr Chandler says.

Your microbiome is evidently very vulnerable to such things, further aided by the busy lifestyle and often poor diets of today. It’s no wonder so many people are turning to probiotics.

By definition, probiotics are the live beneficial bacteria, also referred to as the microbiome, found in your gut. Prebiotics on the other hand, by definition, essentially feed your beneficial bacteria. Given that the human body contains an immense ten times more bacteria than human cells, it is a no-brainer to ensure your good bacteria is well-nourished.

There is a sundry of probiotic-rich food and supplements on the market to increase the population of ‘beneficial bacteria’ in your gut microbiome but sustaining a healthy diet with a regular intake of prebiotics is your best bet. Dr Chandler explains that it is also important to be eating meat, eggs, dairy and bananas (foods rich in tryptophan) plus a good amount of dietary fibre, as this all helps your beneficial gut bacteria produce ‘happy’ hormones.

When looking at probiotic supplements, as a way to ensure your gut microbiome flourishes, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, Dr Chandler explains. “You ideally would have them [probiotics] prescribed as some people, for example those with small intestinal bowel overgrowth, are more sensitive to probiotics and their symptoms may get worse. Also it may be that you need a specific probiotic because one particular type of your good bugs is missing or low,” Dr Chandler says. Probiotics alone are not the whole answer to the health of your microbiome. “As the studies have shown, the benefits of probiotics are affected by your genetics (which we can’t change) and your nutrition (which we can change),” she says.

Gastroenterologist, Frank Jackson, has been interested in the benefits of prebiotics for over 40 years, since he graduated from Princeton University. Dr Jackson explains that in order to achieve a healthy Microbiome, it’s important to feed your healthy bacteria in order for it to stay strong. “The more prebiotic-rich food you consume for your beneficial bacteria to eat, the more efficiently these bacteria will work to build a healthy gut ecosystem,” he says.

As we increasingly learn more about our microbiome through new scientific evidence, it becomes clear that a diet rich in prebiotics is just as important as that of probiotics. Director of Food Biosciences at the University of Reading, Dr Gemma Walton, recently examined this theory by dividing a group of ‘hardworking cowboys’ into two consuming either prebiotic- or probiotic-rich food. Results showed that the prebiotic group managed to increase their beneficial gut bacteria numbers by 133 million, while in the same time period, the probiotic group numbers were insignificant. Walton explains that evidence from the study illustrates how difficult to it is to increase the numbers of your beneficial gut bacteria through probiotics alone. “It seems from this investigation, the best thing you can do for your bacterial health is treat your good bacteria to a prebiotic meal,” Walton says.

Perhaps with this information, it is easier to understand the role you play in influencing the health of your gut microbiome through what you consume. There is no doubt that the microbiome is a complex symbiosis that can easily be knocked out of balance causing harm to your health. Research is only just beginning to scratch the surface in regard to the role fungi plays in its coexistence with bacteria.

One thing is certain today though; we are made up of more bacteria than we house human cells. With the important role your loyal beneficial bacteria play, it only makes sense to feed them up with prebiotics so they have plenty of energy to positively influence both your physical and mental health.

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