Did you know that your body is composed of astronomically more bacterial genes than human? 4 million compared to 26,000 to be exact. It is not surprising, then, to comprehend the importance of these microbes that reside along and inside the intestinal tract, forming the gut microbiome. The gut is an extremely complex environment, living along side up to 80% of immune cells.
Gut bacteria (also referred to as microbiota) play a critical role in overall homeostasis in the body. From birth, they help train and maintain immune cells to function properly. With the rise of long-term antibiotic use, autoimmune and other immune suppressed conditions have been on the rise. It is estimated that approximately 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases. Gut bacteria are responsible for nutrient absorption and transport, assist in liver detoxification, support digestion by producing essential enzymes to break down food, prevent pathogenic bacteria from colonizing, and support mitochondria for energy production.
So how could these bacteria (as well as viruses, parasites, and worms) impact our thoughts, behavior, and even mood? A bi-directional communication pathway called the Gut-Brain Axis (GBA) links our cognitive and emotional functions with the activity occurring in the intestinal tract. In addition, gut bacteria actually produce neurotransmitters and hormones. Many people believe neurotransmitters are only synthesized in the brain, but it might surprise you that the neurotransmitter serotonin, responsible for overall feelings of calm and contentment, is produced mostly by the gut. Dopamine and GABA are also neurotransmitters synthesized in the gut and shuttled back and forth through the GBA to keep you feeling happy, content, and calm. Gut microbes also produce molecules called short-chain fatty acids from feeding on dietary fiber. In balance, short-chain fatty acids play a beneficial role in energy metabolism and colon health and a reduced risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and IBS.
Gut bacteria also play a role in cell receptor site sensitivity. When chronic, low-grade inflammation is present as a result of underlying imbalances, your body needs to produce more and more chemicals to achieve the same goal. Inflammation decreases available oxygen to cells and promotes damage and altered gene expression. An altered gut microbiome can lead to metabolic disturbances, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and abnormalities in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. Factors influencing a pro-inflammatory state and altered gut microbiome include chronic antibiotic use, a diet high in processed carbohydrates and refined sugars including sugar subsitutes (high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, aspartame, etc.), imbalanced omega-3/omega-6 ratio, synthetic hormones including oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, emotional stress, travel, delivery mode at birth, shift work, and excessive exercise. Gut bacteria are highly sensitive to these factors and can promote growth of pathogenic strains.
Research continues to evaluate bacterial environment in relation to stress response in test subjects, behavioral issues, propensity for anxiety and depression, and other mood disorders. Studies have shown the use of probiotics, essential fatty acid supplementation, and dietary and lifestyle choices have attenuated anxiety and depressive-like behavior, increased positive social interaction and overall behavior. Are you feeling stressed? For information about the GAPS Diet and how to get started, you can consult with a Certified GAPS Practitioner and visit our website today!