August 17, 2015
Next time you have a craving for a donut or cookie, don’t blame it on a lack of will power, but on your gut bacteria. Inside the walls of your intestinal tract lie trillions of bacteria that need nutrients and energy to survive and that energy comes from the food you eat. Some research suggests these bacteria, which have their own interests in mind, play a role in the type of foods you select. It’s not so far-fetched when you consider your gut is paved with nerves, as many as 100 million nerve cells, which feedback to your brain, and gut bacteria are in contact with these nerves. So rich is this network of nerves that it’s referred to as the enteric nervous system or “second brain.”
The idea that your brain and gut are closely connected isn’t surprising when you consider the impact stress has on digestive function. If you’ve ever had “butterflies in your stomach,” that’s your brain talking to your gut. Much of the communication between your brain and gut happens through a nerve called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is like “command central” for your digestive tract playing an important role in how quickly food moves through it. But the connection between brain and gut also occurs two ways – the enteric or “gut” nervous system can communicate back to the brain, creating a system of two-way interaction.
Since your intestinal tract is home to a plethora of gut bacteria that play a role in digestive health, it’s not a stretch to say these bacteria could influence what’s happening in your brain and may affect your appetite and even the types of foods you eat. How might this communication take place? One theory is gut bacteria influence levels of chemicals called neurotransmitters that regulate emotions and appetite. For example, research shows when you remove gut bacteria from the gut, they produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine, a chemical also found in your brain, that plays a role in mood, appetite, and cravings. Are you starting to see a connection?
Dopamine isn’t the only neurotransmitter in your gut. Your enteric nervous system produces and uses many of the neurotransmitters your brain does. In fact, you have more serotonin, a neurotransmitter important for sleep and mood, in your gut than you do in your brain. Bacteria in your gut may alter levels of these chemicals and thereby impact how you feel and even what you eat.
OBESE PEOPLE HAVE DIFFERENT GUT BACTERIA
You might wonder if there’s evidence to support this idea. Although most research pointing to gut bacteria’s role in what we eat is from animal studies, it’s clear that people who are overweight or obese and those who are lean have populations of gut bacteria that differ markedly from one another. When obese people undergo gastric bypass surgery, their tastes for certain foods change along with the types of bacteria that make their home in their digestive tract. The question is whether bacteria are in charge and influencing food choices or whether we’re selecting for certain types of bacteria by the food choices WE make. With communication between brain and gut being two ways, it may be some of both.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s easy to think we’re in charge of what we eat, but we may be subtly influenced by the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut. What if we could supply our guts with bacteria that increase the desire to eat vegetables rather than sugary snacks? That would be an easy way to make better food choices! Until then, make sure you’re supplying your gut with a powerful probiotic that includes super strains of beneficial bacteria selected for their ability to help your digestive system.
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