What if I were to tell you that there’s evidence that what we think of as our genetic tendencies (like gaining weight) may not actually be our genes at all. As a matter of fact, it may not even be “us” at all. When we think of “us,” we think of our bodies, but technically only 50% of the cells in our body are even human. The other 50% are microorganisms that we play host to. There are an estimated 100 billion microorganisms in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract alone.
These microorganisms are called many different names – gut flora, gut bacteria or microbiota – and in our gut they make up what is called the microbiome. Recent studies have discovered that the human microbiome can have strong influences on muscle strength, exercise capacity, and weight loss, as well as a multitude of other important aspects of our body’s performance and processes.
If you’re looking to get in better shape, or improve your health and well being, you’re going to find this article very interesting.
Our 2nd Supercomputer
In the West, we dramatically underestimate the role of our gut, downplaying its role to just digestion. But if that were really its only purpose, we would have to stop and ask ourselves a question: Why is it that there are more than a 100 million neurons in the small intestines alone, making it the second highest concentration of neurons in our body outside of our brain?
Let’s break down this incredible fact. (This is crazy stuff.) Neurons are the way the nervous system communicates back and forth with the brain. This nervous system is called the Central Nervous System (CNS), and it controls most functions in the body. It’s made up of just two parts: the brain and the spinal cord.
Here’s the really interesting thing: Our gut is the center of another nervous system, called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). There are as many as 600 million neurons in the ENS. To put that in perspective, one of the most intelligent animals walking this planet is the elephant. The elephant only has around 275 million neurons in its brain.
Wait a second! You’re saying that our gut has potentially twice the “processing” power of an elephant’s brain? Yep! This is exactly why the gut is referred to as our “second brain.” Believe it or not, the Enteric Nervous System can act independently from the Central Nervous System. Although the two can work separately, they also work together, communicating through a massive high-speed network of neurons called our Gut-Brain-Axis (GBA). In other words, we have two brains working together.
Which Brain Came First?
Many researchers believe that our “second brain” may actually be our first brain, as there’s evidence that it may have come before the Central Nervous System. It makes sense, if you think about it. What’s one of the single most important aspects of life? Energy. We consume energy (what we call calories) to fuel the machine we call our body, and our brain (CNS) is always the first in line to be fed.
Our brain alone requires between 400-500+ calories each day (100-130 grams of glucose x 4 calories per gram)! That doesn’t include powering the rest of the body. This means that the capture, processing, and distribution of energy is an extremely important part of our survival – and our second brain is responsible for that. It’s no wonder we can’t think very well when we’re hungry!
What’s All This Processing Power Designed For?
The real question is: What’s the real purpose of all the “brain processing” capability of the gut? It’s obviously not just for digesting food, and it’s not capable of solving mathematical equations. But it is capable of communicating with us.
Think of all the emotions and thoughts that you already associate with your gut. Stress, love, intuition, just to name a few. Ever use the phrase I have a gut feeling? So, what other communication is taking place in this second brain? Is it possible that it’s listening to and cooperating with the billions of microorganisms in our microbiome?
Power of The Microbiome
To have good gut health means more than just whether we do or don’t have indigestion, or whether we poop regularly. Our gut is both the computer and the machinery that processes and distributes energy for the rest of our body. We like to call this energy “food,” but food is just a form of stored energy that our brain has to figure out how to correctly convert it into a usable form of energy, and either use it for immediate fuel or store it for later (body fat).
How the Microbiome Makes Us Feel
The microbiome can also affect hormones that control hunger and satiety (causing you to want to eat either more or less). Other microbiome functions include immune system, metabolism regulation, and neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are the “chemical messengers” that carry signals through our nervous system.
The neurotransmitter serotonin is known for the effects it has on our CNS (brain) regulating mood; it’s helping send messages that can make us either feel happy or sad. Interestingly enough, 95% of our total serotonin production is produced in the gut! One could theorize that an unhealthy gut could potentially make for an unhappy person.
That’s not all Serotonin does, though. It’s also sending a different message to our other nervous system (our second brain), which helps regulate immune function. You could surmise, then, that good gut health affects how well the immune system functions.
My Gut Is Different Than Your Gut
The diversity of microbiota, or the makeup of all the different types of bacteria in your gut, can vary greatly from one person to another. In fact, it’s possible for two identical twins that share the exact same DNA to follow the same diet and same exercise regimen and potentially have totally different results depending on the difference between their microbiome composition.
The gut bacteria of a healthy and fit person can look significantly different than the gut bacteria of an unhealthy, overweight person. Some of these differences can be due to environmental factors starting from birth (the womb is a sterile environment, so bacteria doesn’t accumulate until after birth), but they’re also strongly associated with diet and lifestyle habits.
The massive influence of our microbiome on health, wellness, and fitness potentially shoots some holes in this idea of just blaming our genes for weight- and health-related issues. For many people, good gut health can potentially mean the difference between being overweight versus lean and fit, or tired and lethargic versus happy and energetic.
We Don’t Have a Say in Our DNA
The Battle of Good vs. Bad
Within your gut, there are hundreds of different types of bacteria. Some bacteria are good and help us with critical functions, and some are bad. Think of something as simple as the bacteria in our mouth (streptococci), which can cause decay, aka cavities.
Like any good story, the good fight the bad. We can’t get rid of the bad, but the things we put in our body (food, alcohol, salt, medication, etc) affect the number and diversity of different types of bacteria. In a healthy gut, there’s balance and symbiosis (a mutually beneficial relationship) with all the bacteria; in an unhealthy gut, there’s a dysbiosis (imbalance of bacteria).
Good bacteria help you break down carbohydrates, absorb nutrients, reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, affects the way you feel, and it may even slow the aging process. Good bacteria also helps fight off the bad bacteria.
Bad bacteria (think E. coli and Staphylococcus) can cause everything from relatively minor GI issues, like upset stomach and diarrhea, to more serious illnesses like urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Research has also linked bad bacteria to more serious conditions like heart disease, chronic kidney disease, inflammation and potentially nervous system disorders.
We Have Some Control Over Our Destiny
There are some things in life we truly have no control over – for example, our genetics. But there are things we do have control over. This is the beauty of being human: We have the ability to choose. We can make lifestyle choices about how we treat this intricate machinery we call our body and brain.
In the next part of this series, we’ll reveal some of the things you can do to powerfully alter this vessel we call the human body. CARBS 101: PART 7 THE SECRET TO MANAGING YOUR MICROBIOME
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