Flora on my mind

by Ari LeVaux

Most children seem determined to eat dirt. It may be a coincidence, but those little mud pie makers are now being supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that early exposure to diverse microorganisms results in immune systems. Now there’s reason to think that intestinal bacteria have important effects on brain development as well.

A study published in the March issue of Neurogastroenterology & Motility examined germ-free mice – i.e. mice deprived of contact with bacteria. The researchers observed changes in brain activity based on varying microbe levels. They also found germ-free mice more likely to engage in risky behavior – measured as time spent in areas where they could be seen –than mice with normal levels of intestinal flora. The study concludes this constitutes evidence of bacteria in the loop between belly and brain, influencing behavior.

A separate study, published last November in Archives of General Psychiatry, surveyed the scientific literature for evidence of a connection between gut microbes and depression, and suggested that certain bacteria might be considered as treatment for depression.

Discoveries such as these support “Hygiene Hypothesis,” which postulates that hyper-sterile environments, antimicrobial soaps and general paranoia about bacteria are responsible for many “diseases of civilization,” like asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders. The recently discovered importance of bacteria in brain function helps deepen understanding of our relationship with these ancient organisms.

Anybody who’s ever “listened to their gut” when making important decisions might be satisfied to learn of this biochemical evidence for the mind/belly connection. The mechanism by which mouse-belly microbes might influence mice brains isn’t known. There is speculation that the vagus nerve is a likely conduit.

The vagus nerve connects the brain to several parts of the digestive system. It’s what tells your brain how hungry you are, based on what it senses in your belly. The vagus nerve has also been shown to carry signals initiated by bacteria. Staphylococcus can attack the vagus nerve and induce vomiting. Salmonella infections have been shown to affect brain activity, a connection lost when the vagus nerve is severed.

However mouse gut bacteria exert their influence on the brain, the fact that they do so, on top of all of the other cooperative relationships we’ve been discovering with bacteria, is amazing. And it makes me wonder who’s really in charge. Are we simply hosting these creatures, or driving them around as well? When kids eat dirt, is it because the bacteria are telling them to?

Although we have a size advantage on the bacteria we harbor, they dramatically outnumbered us. And on the genetic level, bacteria bring far more to the table. Of the 3 million different genes identifiable in us, only 30,000 are human genes. We share those additional millions of bacterial genes with thousands of different species.

The species lines in bacteria can be fuzzier than with mammals. I’m a lot less likely to exchange DNA with my dog than are two bacterium with each other. The genetic mixing is assisted by bacteriophages: viruses that infect bacteria. Some of the most widely distributed creatures in the biosphere, they usually insert some of their genetic information into the host, while helping themselves to what looks good in the host’s genetic fridge. Then they move on to the next bacteria, spreading genes as they go. When we speak of bacterial populations it’s a given that there is an associated bacteriophage population.

A recent study found large amounts of bacteriophage DNA in kimchi, suggesting a significant role in the fermentation process. Kimchi is one of many bacteria-rich (and presumably phage-rich) foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, that many people consider to be superfoods.

The Paleo diet – short for Paleolithic – is a modern diet that’s based on the foods humans would have had access to during our evolutionary formative years. According to the Paleo diet, modern-day foods like sugar, grains and processed carbohydrates shift the balance toward undesirable flora, while animal- and vegetable-based dishes, including fermented foods and vinegar, encourage good bacteria. It’s no wonder, according to the Paleo worldview, that foods that have been with us since the beginning are the ones that keep our bodies in proper balance – with the help of our old friends bacteria.

The “Gut and Psychology Syndrome” (GAPS) diet (also the name of the related book) is built on the premise of a link between mental and intestinal health. The diet mixes probiotic supplements with foods designed to tilt the playing field so the good bacteria take over.

Probiotic supplements are essentially “good bacteria” by the millions, in pill form. Doctors often recommend them after a round of antibiotics, which can kill the good bacteria in your body along with the bad.

Much of what we’re learning in labs is validating ancient wisdom, like the importance of fermented foods. And along these bacterial lines, science is also finding an important function for an organ it once dismissed as a useless evolutionary relic: the appendix. Now they’re realizing that the appendix probably has immunological functions related to the fact that it acts as a reservoir of spare bacteria in case your gut flora gets killed off or flushed out, say, in a nasty bout of diarrhea.

We’re still at the beginning of the bacterial learning curve. A research team recently determined that humans can be classified into three categories depending on the type of bacteria in their guts. Such bacterial affiliation is found in all humans, and is unrelated to race or to the gut-bacteria type of one’s parents. At this point we have no idea what this means, or where it will lead.

But we can be sure as we continue learning about bacteria, kids will continue eating nature’s probiotic wherever they can find it. And the more we learn, the smarter they seem.

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