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Why trusting your gut is more critical than we ever thought

The human gut is a bustling metropolis of microbial activity, with a staggering 100 trillion microbes hard at work. Envision a lush field of grass, each blade representing an individual microbe, thriving within your gut at this very moment.

As science delves deeper into the realm of these microscopic inhabitants, we are only beginning to grasp the profound impact they have on our bodies and identities. Before we unravel their mysteries, it’s important we understand what microbes truly are. These unicellular organisms, including fungi and bacteria, exist in a symbiotic relationship with us. Some are beneficial, aiding in disease prevention and bolstering our immune system, while others may pose a threat. They call our gut home, and in return, they provide invaluable services:

  1. Digestion: Your microbiome helps break down certain complex carbohydrates and dietary fibers that you can’t break down on your own and helps metabolize bile in your intestines. 

  2. Immune system: A staggering 80 per cent of your body's immune cells reside in the gut. Beneficial microbes play a crucial role in training your immune system to distinguish friend from foe.

  3. Endocrine system: Interacting with endocrine cells, your gut microbiome influences hunger, metabolism, and blood sugar regulation.

  4. Nervous system: Through the vagus nerve, a vital connection between the brain and gut, messages such as serotonin are relayed, impacting your overall mood.

The gut brain connection is a key area where scientists are attempting to understand and learn more. The vagus nerve is a large nerve that connects the brain to the gut, you can think of it as a big highway sending traffic from the gut up to the brain and vice versa. Surprisingly, 80 per cent of the traffic along this nerve originates from the gut, influencing brain functions. Certain microbes, like short-chain fatty acids, can send positive signals to the brain, while others, such as bacterial toxins, may have adverse effects.

To try to understand just how much the gut influences the brain, scientists conducted an experiment using two mice. As Katheen McAuliffe outlines in her fascinating TedTalk she explains that one mouse grew up in a contained and controlled environment, essentially in a sterile bubble and one who grew up in a normal wild environment. The bubble mouse was timid, slow to learn, quick to forget and loved the familiar. The wild mouse was the exact opposite with a natural curiosity and willingness to learn. Scientists then placed microbiomes from the wild mouse to the bubble mouse and something amazing started to happen.  The timid bubble mouse became more curious and eager to learn, mirroring the traits of its wild counterpart. While humans are not mice, this study sparks intriguing questions about the potential impact of microbiomes on our personalities.

Research into vagus nerve stimulation for depression in those that have not responded to treatment has shown promising results, shedding light on how electrical impulses can influence mood-regulating brain areas. Additionally, in Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)  research both good and bad gut bacteria have been linked to ALS. In animal models research has discovered two bacteria that accelerate and slow the development of ALS. There have also been some interesting discoveries with Parkinson's research. Our gut harbors E-coli, these E-coli can sometimes fire a misfolded compound, this misfolding protein folds up the vagus nerve and this degeneration can be found in the brain of patients with Parkinson's disease.

While all this is really fascinating, so much more research needs to be done to really understand the impact of microbiome on the brain. So while science continues innovating, here's one key thing you should take away. Your gut health may be more important than we ever realized. A dietitian on the TELUS Health MyCare app can help ensure you are eating the right foods to ensure a healthy microbiome. 

As this research keeps unfolding we will leave you with one interesting question: are you who you are because of your brain, or because of your gut? 

Users must be 16 years or older to access dietitian appointments. Dietitian appointments are available for AB, BC, ON and SK residents. Dietitian appointments require additional payment of $120. Any payments for appointments must be paid using a valid credit card. An in-app receipt will be provided for you to claim for reimbursement if applicable.