What is the gut microbiome?
It refers to the trillions of microbes like bacteria, viruses, fungi and other micro-organisms that live in our digestive tract, predominantly in the cecum area of the large intestine. The most studied microbes are the bacteria and these alone, have been found to have a huge impact on our health.
The gut microbiome is extremely adaptable and directly in contact with our external environment through our intake of food, drink and other substances. From the moment we are born, it continually develops, responding and adapting to new and different microbes and thereby, becoming more diverse and robust.
Gut health has a profound impact on physical, mental and immune health as well as our ability to deal with stress. Modern living is decimating our gut microbes, causing insomnia, brain fog, fatigue, depression and many other health issues. To maintain or restore the health of your microbiome and support good overall health, it is important to maintain a strong balance in favour of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.
The digestive process
The role of gut bacteria is to release enzymes that digest food to provide fuel for the cells in our bodies, including our brain. This fuel, in the form of glucose, is extracted by the digestive system, beginning with the mouth. Saliva contains digestive enzymes called Amylase and Lipase, which begin the process of breaking down carbohydrates and fats. The moistened food is then moved through the oesophagus, via peristalsis, into the stomach, where it is met with hydrochloric acid and other enzymes that further digest the food and liquid. The resulting liquid, called chyme, then enters the small intestine, which extracts the glucose from the liquid and moves it into the bloodstream, via the lining of the intestinal wall. To be transported around the body, the glucose needs insulin in the blood to carry the glucose molecules to where it is needed. Insulin effectively unlocks the door of each cell, to allow glucose in and it is then converted to heat and energy, using oxygen. In essence, to be healthy, we need energy – food is fuel and powers life!
The microbiome affects the body in a number of ways, including:
Supporting growth from the earliest age when bifidobacteria in babies’ intestines digest the healthy sugars in breast milk.
Certain bacteria digest fibre, producing short-chain fatty acids, which are important for gut health as they bind to the immune cells, teaching them to tolerate different foods and pathogens.
Many disorders are caused by an imbalance in the microbiome due to inflammation, intestinal permeability or a lack of bacterial diversity, any of which may be associated with an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria from pathogens or an unhealthy lifestyle. Reducing inflammatory environments in the body are crucial for health.
The gut microbiome also controls how your immune system works. By communicating with immune cells, the gut microbiome can control how your body responds to infection and by restoring the gut microbiome, we can re-assert the normalcy of immunology.
Signals from the digestive system affect metabolism, raising or reducing the risk for health conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weight gain.
“The Psychobiome” – research suggests that the gut microbiome may also affect the central nervous system, which controls brain function. The gastro-intestinal tract is sensitive to emotion and inflammation of the gut has been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are so prevalent in society today. One study, showed that 30% of people went into remission from severe depression after changing their diet, significantly higher than those receiving cognitive counselling.
The gut-brain link
Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, is a “brain” linking digestion, mood, health and even the way we think. This is called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract from oesophagus to rectum. Gut bacteria also manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a happiness hormone, which influences our mood, as well as producing hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological and mental processes such as learning and memory. Emotions can trigger symptoms in the gut and send signals to the brain and a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. These two systems are closely linked, connected by the Vagus nerve.
Ancient healing traditions like Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine have recognised the link between the gut and body’s organs for thousands of years.
The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates wrote “All disease begins in the gut”, nearly 2000 years ago!
Restoring a healthy balance….healing from the ground up.
- Nutrition- the first step is to eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods with probiotic or prebiotic ingredients that support microbial health by helping to restore balance to the gut microbiome.
“Eating all the colours of the rainbow” – eating a diverse diet, high in plant-based foods is hugely beneficial. The variety of foods is important, as during the breakdown of food via fermentation, metabolites are produced and these interact with every cell in the body, supporting diverse gut bugs and good health.
Time restricted eating and improving gut health – if we are constantly eating, our gut has no time to rest and repair. Our livers and gut lining are set up to repair at night, during which time we are not primed for digestion. If we eat all our food within 8 hours rather than 15 or 16, we see a decline in liver disease, IBS, Diverticulitis, weight gain (even if we eat the same calories), cardio vascular disease and many others. We also see an increase in microbiota.
A healthy immune system –good gut microbiota are the key educators of the immune system, enabling the body to heal and protecting us from diseases like cancer.
Gut-joint connection – a persistent leaky gut allows harmful bacteria to circulate around the body and to be deposited into various tissues and organs, including skeletal muscles and joints, creating inflammation, pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Lack of physical movement – reduces the activity of gut bacteria, transport of oxygen through the gut and efficiency of bacteria to process food to make short chain fatty acids, especially the ones that produce the gut-healing fatty acid n-butyrate.
- Managing stress is crucial – the gut-brain axis affects our stress levels. Cortisol dampens our immune response and can even re-activate viruses. A healthy gut offers a buffer between our bodies and stress. A more developed and diverse microbiome blunts the stress response, improves our mood and changes the brain’s response to negative stimuli.
Stress and worry activate the sympathetic nervous system and slows down digestion, as the brain highjacks our energy to focus on keeping us safe from harm. Eating mindfully, in a calm environment and resting before eating, allows the stomach to relax and stretch and the digestive system to prepare for digestion. Even a simple thing like bad posture, which constricts the digestive tract can hamper digestion – we can perhaps take our cue from the Japanese way of eating, sitting in a pose that elongates the digestive tract and raising the bowl rather than bending over a plate.
How can Yoga Therapy help to support a healthy microbiome?
Through specific movement, breathing techniques and relaxation practices, Yoga Therapy stimulates the Vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, balances the nervous system and improves functional breathing to reduce the stress response and improve digestive function.
Yoga Therapy encourages physical movement, improving the processing capacity of microbiota, balancing metabolism, increasing energy and keeping the digestive system moving.
Yoga Therapy focuses on the individual, adapting practices to specific digestive issues and working with the whole person, from a holistic perspective.
Yoga Therapy creates a safe space which allows for complete relaxation, quietening the chattering mind and ensuring optimum absorption of nutrients and elimination.
Yoga Therapy also increases awareness and proprioception, often leading to people making better choices around their health and lifestyle.With each day that we live and with every meal we eat, we directly influence this fascinating microbial organ inside us. The benefit of this is, that we can make the choices necessary to feed our bodies and our brain in ways that support our gut health and overall wellbeing.