We often hear about our gut microbiome and how it can influence our wellbeing, but for many of us this vast microbial community within our bodies remains something of a mystery.
Now, new research points to a correlation between gut bacteria and mental health. Researchers in Belgium found study participants with depression had low levels of two types of intestinal bacteria, but they couldn’t determine if this caused the depression or the other way round.
They also studied how gut bacteria “communicate” with the nervous system by producing neurotransmitters that are important for mental health.
Clearly there’s a lot more going on inside our intestines than simply digesting food. So here are a few more things to know about the microscopic organisms that live in our guts.
1. Gut flora
The average person’s gut contains hundreds of different bacteria types and over 39 trillion bacteria, most of which reside in the colon. Collectively known as “gut flora”, these bacteria control numerous functions that support good health, such as producing vitamin K and some of the B vitamins.
2. Friend or foe?
Healthy bacteria, such as lactobacillus, are essential for digestion and are good at destroying unfriendly bugs. Having too many harmful bacteria in the gut has been linked to conditions like obesity and bowel disease. Low stress levels, exercise and a healthy diet can help keep things in balance.
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3. You are what you eat
Many fruits, vegetables, pulses and grains are rich in prebiotic fibre, which is good for the gut. Eating a varied diet containing foods like lentils, oats, onions, nuts and bananas promotes the growth of healthy bacteria like bifidobacterium and faecalibacterium. These live cultures can also be found in some yoghurts and eaten as a supplement.
4. Smoking, drinking and the gut
Drinking too much alcohol and smoking tobacco can contribute to a bacterial imbalance in the microbiome, called dysbiosis. While some moderate consumption of red wine can be beneficial, excessive alcohol intake damages the friendly bacteria that keep the gut in balance, and can lead to serious health risks. Smoking cigarettes also decreases gut bacteria diversity, which can lead to bowel problems like Crohn’s disease.
5. Diversity is important
Although the presence – or lack – of particular types of bacteria has been linked to individual conditions, when it comes to microbiomes diversity counts. Your gut works at its best with the right mix and balance of bacteria.