Science continues to discover extraordinary facts about the microbes (bacteria, viruses and protozoa) that live in our gut (the tube that runs from the mouth to the exit). These microbes weigh in total anywhere between 1 and 2.5 kilos in the average adult, outnumber our human cells by a factor of about 3 to 1 and consist of thousands of different species with 100 times more genetic material than the entire human genome.
In broad terms there are three different classifications of microbe, namely ‘beneficial’, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘transitional’. We now know that optimal health requires a delicate balance to be maintained between these different types (eubiosis). The beneficial microbes should be dominant, keeping the opportunistic and transitional microbes under tight control. In fact the science in this particular area of research is moving at a rapid pace with the recognition of distinct ‘gut-organ’ interactions and dependencies such as the ‘gut-brain’ and ‘gut-skin’ axes.
Some of the identified key roles of a balanced micro flora include: balanced mood (the gut is the largest hormone and neurotransmitter producing organ in the body, for example producing over 90% of serotonin (serotonin is also required for properly motility of the gut)), digestion of proteins and carbohydrates (helping us get more nutrients from our food), manufacture of vitamins and essential fatty acids, increase in the number of immune system cells, immune system tolerance, break down of bacterial toxins and detoxification and the conversion of specific plant compounds into anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory factors, as well as assisting with efficient weight management and energy production.
Birth type/time of weaning/length of breastfeeding, chronic antibiotic use, parasitic and/or yeast/fungal infections, food poisoning, poor food choices, recreational drug use, unidentified food sensitivities, lack of nutrient density and diversity, chronic stress, chronic use of medications and NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen), oral contraception, regular alcohol intake and a high toxic load are all known contributors to dysbiosis (imbalance of the gut micro flora). Recent research also specifically connects gluten related disorders (the umbrella term for coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten/wheat sensitivity and wheat allergy) to the initiation of dysbiosis, neuroinflammation and the disruption of the gut/brain axis and the manifestation of anxiety and depression.
So what does this all mean? Look after your microbes and they will look after you. How can I do that? Lifestyle and diet are your key tools.