The gut-brain axis
It may sound far-fetched, but your gut and your brain are intimately connected and in constant dialogue with each other. Scientists are even referring to the gut as the second brain, which is also called the enteric nervous system (ENS). It’s made up of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells all along the lining of your gastrointestinal tract. The connection between the gut and the brain means that the state of our gut microbiota can impact things like mood, mental health, appetite, behaviour and circadian rhythm.
The gut-skin axis
The gut-skin axis refers to the constant dialogue between your gut and your skin. The close connection between your gut and your skin means that the state of your gut may have an outsized effect on the state of your skin.
That’s why checking in with the way your skin looks and feels can also be a good way to check in on the state of your gut. And when your skin isn’t looking its best, that could be a sign that the balance is off in your gut.
How does lifestyle affect the gut flora?
Dramatic changes in lifestyles over the last 50 years have left their marks on the state of our gut. Increased urbanisation and new eating habits have resulted in negative changes to our microbiota.
Our microbiota is negatively affected by:
- Overuse of antibiotics and other drugs - Antibiotics kill all bacteria, not only the harmful ones that cause illness and disease.
- Obsessive hygiene - Showering several times a day, using germ-killing soaps and detergents etc, all deplete our microbiota.
- Poor eating habits - Fast food, processed food, coffee and alcohol. It may taste good, but your gut bacteria do not thrive on junk food, they need fibre, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Stress and lack of sleep - Both stress and a lack of sleep may lead to changes in the composition of the gut bacteria and a reduction of microbial diversity.
- Excessive exercise - While working out is beneficial for your general well-being, professional athletes are often exercising at a level that harms their microbiota and puts their immune system under stress, making them more susceptible to infections.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle
On the flip side, we can also affect our gut health by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and doing things like:
- Eating a balanced and varied diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables
- Getting lots of restful sleep every night
- Moving our bodies every day, especially outside!
- Limiting stress and taking time to breath, stretch and practise mindfulness
- Taking a daily probiotic supplement
What are good bacteria?
Good bacteria can be found in food. Long before we had refrigerators and freezers, people used bacteria in fermentation to prolong the shelf-life of food. Examples of fermented foods are yoghurt, sauerkraut and pickled vegetables. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, are all lactic acid bacteria commonly used for fermentation.
Truly healthy bacteria are known as probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria that are proven to benefit our health by restoring the bacteria balance in the body. They are usually consumed as food supplements. Examples of common probiotic strains are Limosilactobacillus reuteri Protectis, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Bifidobacterium animalis ssp. lactis BB-12.
What are pathogens?
A small percentage of all bacteria on earth are pathogenic, meaning they may cause health problems and disease. Food poisoning may be caused by E. coli and Salmonella, sepsis by S. aureus and S. pneumoniae can give pneumonia.
It is important to remember that bacteria of the same species but of different strains can behave completely differently. Some species, like E. coli, harbour strains that are extremely pathogenic, like EHEC and ETEC, which cause severe diarrhoea. On the other hand, some strains of E. coli are commensals, meaning that they are harmless to humans and they are one of the most common bacteria we carry in our gastrointestinal tract.