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Gut bacteria and its influence on our entire bodies

Over the past year, there have been many notable discoveries regarding gut bacteria and how it can actually influence many other parts of the body. It has also been discovered that gut bacteria has a connection to many conditions / disorders such as autism, depression, parkinson’s, diabetes and an array of automimmune conditions . The research on this particular type of bacteria really seems to be gaining momentum and we are now looking at our gut bacteria like never before. So what have we learned and how can we use this information to improve our health?

Studies have shown that the brain can be greatly affected by gut microbes. This may be linked to the fact that the majority of neurons that exist outside of the brain, are present in the intestines.1  Many of the research conducted brings to light the gut’s relationship with the brain, immune and nervous system. 

Recent research into links between Parkinson’s disease and gut flora have shown that changes in gut bacteria could be a trigger for Parkinson’s. Studies using mice indicated that differences in the gut could contribute to Parkinson’s but further studies need to be undertaken. The differences are that Parkinson’s patients do not seem to have some species of gut microbes that people without the disease seem to have. 2

Changes in gut bacteria can also help cause inflammation that occurs in automoimmune conditions such as lupus, MS and rheumatoid arthritis. This has been revealed in new research which further emphasises the link between gut flora and our immune systems. ‘Good’ bacteria such as probiotics can have a positive effect on reducing inflammation that aggravates these conditions. Again, this research was performed on mice and involved giving groups of mice healthy bacteria which in turn reduced inflammation. This kind of research offers potential for dietary treatments when further investigated. 3

Altering the gut bacteria in young babies could help prevent the onset of asthma in children. A report has found that the presence of certain gut flora at an early age has been linked to the development of asthma and allergies. The suggestion is that supplementing babies with specific bacteria may be a way of tackling childhood allergies. The research was carried out on babies rather than mice. Stool samples were examined and babies were monitored over a period of years. Early exposure to the ‘correct’ microbes could have a significant impact on health. 4

There is increasing evidence that gut flora could be a factor in determining our likelihood of developing colon cancer. This may be less surprising than some of the other discoveries as it relates to our digestive system. Research using rats showed that those with a specific gut microbiota developed less or no tumours by the age of 6 months than the rats with a different microbiota. This indicates that types of gut bacteria could contribute to the development of tumours and could help predict how likely it is that each specific subject goes on to have cancer in the future. 5

It has long been known that migraines can be triggered by the food that a person eats. However, now scientists are beginning to explore whether this is related to gut bacteria. Research conducted demonstrated that those susceptible to migraines, had higher levels of a nitrate processing bacteria. Nitrates can be found in notorious migraine trigger foods such as wine and meat. This possibly indicates that migraines occur once nitrates are broken down in an efficient manner (by certain bacteria). Processed nitrates convert into nitric oxide. Once in the bloodstream, this chemical dilates blood vessels. However, it has also been shown to cause headaches. 6

A study on mice has shown that behaviours associated with autism can be reversed if a particular type of gut bacteria is existent. The research was carried out on mice that had been born to adults that were on a high fat diet as well as another group born to adults on a healthy diet. The mice with parents on a high fat diet exhibited what was considered social impairments. 7 

Further testing using gene sequencing found that the offspring of the mice on the high fat diet had very different gut flora to the offspring of the healthy mice. When the high fat diet mice were later housed with the healthy mice (in which they ate eachother’s faeces which is a normal mouse behaviour), the high fat diet mice showed improvement in social behaviour. The single type of bacteria responsible was then located (Lactobacillus reuteri). When this strain was used to treat the high fat diet mice, social behaviour was improved again. 8 

Another link from the gut to the brain was ascertained after mice were put on a high dose of antibiotics to eradicate gut bacteria. After this was done, the mice were shown to have 40 percent less new born brain cells in the hippocampus. In addition to this, it was found that by giving the mice probiotics and some exercise, the effect was reversed and brain cells were re-established. Interestingly, this particular study found that the link between the gut flora and the brain in this instance was via the immune system. These findings could pave the way for probiotic treatments for better mental health. 9

These above findings are just a small example of the amount of new information we have discovered about gut microbiology in the last year. The scope and diversity of findings has prompted a boom in start ups geared at developing products and continuing research into the gut microbiome.

The research still has a way to go. A lot of the studies involved testing on rodents. Further studies into how gut flora affects humans needs to be carried out to ascertain the extent to which gut microbes contribute to health. This all seems very promising and it is very likely that 2017 will be an even bigger year for the gut microbiome. 

References

1 & 2. http://time.com/4587498/parkinsons-disease-gut-bacteria/
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gut-bacteria-autoimmune-disease_us_58595dd5e4b03904470acd99
4. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/12/altering-gut-microbes-of-babies-could-prevent-asthma-and-allergies
5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100901.htm
6. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/18/migraines-could-be-caused-by-gut-bacteria-nitrates-food-trigger-study-suggests
7 & 8. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2016/06/autism-and-gut-bacteria-surprising-link-between-mind-and-stomach
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2089094-gut-bacteria-influence-the-birth-of-new-brain-cells-in-mice/)

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