We are never truly alone. Inside our body, our gastrointestinal tract houses trillions of bacteria. These microbial consortia are composed of many different bacterial species, collectively called the human microbiome. Though it sounds gross and even unhealthy, gut bacteria perform many important functions in the body, including aiding the immune system, producing the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, making energy available to the body from the food we eat, and disposing of foreign substances and toxins.
However, the bacteria in our gut is a mixture of good and bad and sometimes the bad guys get the upper hand. This can cause imbalances in gut bacteria, also known as dysbiosis, which in turn can influence several health conditions. Read on to learn more!
Absorption of Dietary Fats
Analyzing how gut bacteria affects the absorption of fat is fairly novel research. However, numerous animal studies have successfully demonstrated that short chain fatty acids are absorbed in the gut, affecting several physiological processes thereafter. Gut microbes facilitate production and secretion of digestive enzymes into the small bowel. An exciting new study has examined how bacteria in the small intestine help digest and absorb high-fat foods. The novel research suggests that in the future we could potentially combat obesity by inhibiting the abundance of certain bacteria that promote fat absorption.
Digestion of Flavonoids
Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant chemicals that can be found in several fruits and vegetables such as onions, kale, strawberries, grapes etc. Our gut bacteria play a crucial role in digesting these to keep us healthy.
Digestion of Fiber, helping to promote weight loss
Humans cannot digest fiber on their own, but it passes into the intestine where the gut bacteria live and absorbs water, “bulking” us up to the point where we eventually pass waste. The average fiber intake of adults is less than half recommended levels. Increasing consumption of dietary fiber with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes across the life cycle is a critical step in stemming the epidemic of obesity found in developed countries. Fiber consumption is important for digestion to not only keep you regular, but to ensure that your body is getting the vitamins and minerals it needs to function.
An increasing number of research studies indicate that our gut microbiota does play an important role in our health. It affects our metabolism and can be linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The gut may play a role in feelings of satiety by affecting leptin and ghrelin, which are commonly known as the hunger hormones. Balance in the gut could then mean that we would more easily control our appetite, while still getting all the energy we need.
The microbiome also appears to play a significant role not only in our digestive health, but also our mental health. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behavior, sleep, appetite, memory, and even libido, is produced in the gut. When less serotonin is produced, it can negatively impact mood.
The human microbiome is an entire ecosystem that influences our health just as much as any other organ. We are connected by one digestive tract and the bacteria that co-exist within us can either influence us positively or negatively. The foods that we consume can alter our gut bacteria for better or worse, and a healthy microbiome will directly improve our long-term health.