We are not alone! Our bodies, and particularly our digestive systems, contain trillions of micro-organisms.
The best estimate is that about 10,00000000000000 bacteria live in our gut.
That’s 10, with 14 zeros after it! A huge number! We have more bugs in our gut than there are stars in the Milky Way!
Together with trillions of viruses, yeasts and an ancient family of microorganisms, these bacteria make up our “gut microbiome” which is mostly located in our lower intestine. In many ways, the microbiome is now considered to be an important and adaptable body organ.
In the last 15 years, medical science has recognised that the microbiome is a key player in human health. The human body needs these microbes to survive and thrive, just as much as they need us. In a true symbiosis, the microbiome acts as an extra organ with its own unique function and metabolism.
The field of microbiome research is very active, with dozens of academic papers published every week. New microbiome functions are being discovered all the time. We now know that the microbiome actively helps us to digest our food, control our blood sugars, maintain a healthy body weight, and helps keep our immune system working effectively.
Microbiome health has even been linked to improved mood, increased ability to deal with stress, and helping to reduce our risk of developing diabetes, food allergies, asthma, and digestive conditions including Crohn’s disease and colitis.
The number one influence on our gut microbiome is the food that we eat. The evidence points to the fact that eating a rich variety of plants and plant-based foods is the real key to maintaining a healthy and diverse microbiome. There are other factors too, including sleep, exercise and other gut-healthy habits. The Happy Mind pillars all help cultivate a happy gut.
How are the gut and the brain connected
We are all familiar with the concept of a “gut feeling”, that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach when we receive bad news or wake up in the morning of an important exam. When we encounter a new experience or a new situation, we carry out a “gut check” to figure out if the situation seems safe
In fact, there is a very real connection between the gut and the brain
The gut and brain are physically connected by the vagus nerve, which has been described as a “broadband cable”, carrying trillions of signals between the gut and brain everyday.
There is a second, less direct connection, this is via hormones. These are substances released by the pituitary and adrenal glands under control from the brain, that also influence the movement and secretions of the digestive tract.
The SMILES research tested the impact of putting a number of patients with depression on a dietary based intervention adopting a higher in fibre plant strong diet to see the impact. The results were very positive and showed very promising signs that diet has a significant impact on mental health.
Our brain sends the gut signals all the time. For example, when we sit down to a meal, our brain lets the gut know. Before the food has even arrived, we start to salivate and our intestines start to move and secrete digestive enzymes, gurgling and rumbling in preparation.
The gut also sends data to the brain, letting us know if we have eaten enough food, when we need to find a bathroom and even letting us know when we have eaten something that might cause harm.
We refer to all of these connections as “the gut-brain axis”
What role does the microbiome have in the Gut Brain Axis?
The microbiome makes neurotransmitters; chemicals that can act on our nerves and brain cells to influence our mood and behaviour. Beyond the benefits of a healthy microbiome, a plant-based diet has been shown to increase your chances of long-term brain health, by reducing your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.