Diving into understanding gut health is humbling. It's another dimension where zillions of strange creatures are battling for control. Trying to wrap my head around the complexity of an entire ecosystem is a challenge - but what is clear is that this invisible world has a profound influence on our lives.
Right now, you have somewhere between 300-1000 different types of microorganisms living inside you, with a population of around 30+ trillion in your colon. That's twenty times more stars than in our Milky Way Galaxy.
Trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, and others- AKA your microbiome - are constantly interacting with each other. This occurs inside your intestines, which have a greater surface area than your skin – more than 4000 square feet. This area is covered in 500+ million neurons.
And these have a direct link to the brain via something called the vagus nerve. This is the brain-gut connection and why gut health is so much more than being gassy or having food sensitivities.
The Second Brain
The brain and the gut are in constant communication via the vagus nerve. This nerve also connects every organ in our body and is the basis for the mind-body connection we hear about. This information highway communicates messages from all over the body. And a ton of that data is coming from your guts.
For example, 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are created in your gut, along with 30 different neurotransmitters. Serotonin is associated with happiness or depression. Dopamine is the reward chemical for achieving goals or taking a bong hit. Neurotransmitters do a ton of different stuff, but basically, your nervous system needs them to work correctly.
These chemicals have huge effects on our everyday lives. While we usually think about how they interact with our brains, that is not the whole story- the brain and the gut have a back-and-forth communication.
An example of how this works showed up in a study of irritable bowel syndrome. IBS is an umbrella term for a bunch of different chronic problems with bowel movements like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
What happened is what people with IBS took anti-depressants, which work through serotonin- both their depression and their IBS symptoms improved.
The cause of IBS cause is not officially known, but it seems to not just be physical - it shows up in traumatized people. The study results hint at a new way of seeing how the mind and body are connected, much of this interaction coming from the gut.
The gut has been called the second brain, and a group of scientists dug deeper into how this works. They found that when they put the poop from depressed humans into mice, they also became anxious and depressed.
We are only just starting to decode out how this works. Still, the results show that people who love chocolate have specific microbiology in their guts compared to people who are less into it.
These tiny creatures might even be influencing our day-to-day decisions about what we eat. It's up for debate, but sugar cravings and a variety of other impulses could be caused by your colony of microbes.
What About Physical Health?
And gut health isn't just limited to the nervous system. 70% of our immune system is in our guts. The life in your microbiome help creates immune cells, target invaders, guide immune cells to them, and even beef up their attacks on invaders.
A ton of research shows that many modern chronic health problems like allergies, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are linked to imbalances in the gut.
I could go on about how these organisms are constantly feeding on each other, the food you eat and then excreting waste, which others then eat, and their waste affects cells in your body.
Or about that these microbes can influence gene expression? The theory that bacteria have been a massive force for human evolution and that we, in fact, co-evolve with them? That your DNA determines your microbiome? How about that we are actually more microorganisms than human cells?
This shit is seriously complex with kind of endlessly cascading consequences.
After too many gut health articles, it's like a psychedelic ego death – your little human life is just an insignificant speck in a universe of trillions of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses.
Don't worry. You are still significant. Because you can make decisions about how you treat your body. Mainly because you have control over what you put into your microbiome.
The average human eats 80 000 pounds of food in their lifetime. Making good choices here is our most significant power - not supplements or random snacks marketed as probiotics. Is a couple of capsules or probiotic protein bar going to outweigh tens of thousands of pounds of food? There is no magic pill you can take to balance the gut.
But what about probiotics? The good microbes?
Well, we are simply adding more tiny creatures to an already wildly complex system that we don't really understand. In some situations, it does work, like after antibiotics which tank your microbiome. But it can also be a disaster and make symptoms worse. Probiotics also won't necessarily permanently colonize your gut either, as there are thousands of things living down there that don't welcome newcomers.
If you should take probiotics is way beyond the scope of this article, it's complicated, so doing your own homework is a good idea. Same with diet. Diets are like belief systems these days. You can google most diets and find pluses and minuses for gut health, so I won't tell you what to eat.
However, while I'm definitely not a gastroenterologist, one factor comes up a lot - fiber.
Certain types of fiber feed beneficial probiotics. This fiber is called prebiotic. The waste from the probiotics feeding on prebiotics creates a waste our bodies can use called postbiotics. Postbiotics contain short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that can help with leaky gut, basically holes in your intestines causing inflammation.
There are many different types of fiber that I won't get into here. But if you're interested, check out soluble vs. insoluble fiber. Also resistant starch.
Breakdown - prebiotics (fiber) + probiotics (good microbes) = postbiotics (gut healing SCFAs)
The New Hack?
If counting grams of fiber and changing diet isn't your style, there are always fecal microbiota transfers. FMT is probably the closest thing to a magic pill we have.
Like the mice who got sad with depressed human poop inside them, we can go the other way and improve gut situations with healthy poop from healthy humans.
Unfortunately, this therapy isn't yet approved everywhere, so you may have to wait a few years.
But there is always the DIY option.
A vibrant online community is practicing at home FMT. Apparently, an online marketplace where you can buy bags of designer shit once existed. I couldn't find it, so maybe they moved to the dark web. Rumor has it a good bag goes for a couple hundred dollars.
Apparently, FMT is a reasonably intuitive process that doesn't require much in terms of equipment. Like, poop, a plastic bag, and water. In fact, FMT is an ancient practice, recorded back as far as the 4th century BC in China.
And FMT is way more effective than conventional antibiotics for treating gut problems. In one study, half the participants got fecal transplants, and the others didn't. But the ones getting transplants recovered so quickly that it was deemed unethical not to put the good poop in everybody.
It sounds gross, but the results are super impressive. Not just digestive stuff, but FMT is even being used to treat autism. When I had my own gut health journey, I seriously considered it, and there are official clinics in some states that can do this for you. Getting a pro to do it with screened stool is ideal because you can get something you don't want.
Perhaps one day, we will pop pills of other people's shit to heal our depression. It's in the works.
The complexity of the gut is fascinating, if not a little intimidating, but solutions don't have to be. Eating in a way that works for you is possible with experimentation and research.
For me, the takeaway from studying gut health is the interconnectedness of systems. Microorganisms and humans, the gut and brain. Instead of just searching for magic pills finding ways for a more holistic approach is the name of the game.
By Patrick McConnel