Why the Bugs in Your Gut are So Important
Anyone who’s taken a grade-school science class knows that bacteria are the building blocks of all life on our planet. Nothing can exist without bacteria, including human beings. Yet, to simply coexist with our bacteria is to do a great disservice to our overall mental and physical wellbeing; instead, we must try to maximize on the benefits of our intestinal bacteria by optimizing the good bacteria’s ability to thrive. Of course, we must also alter our diets to stomp out the bad bacteria - those that are known to be leading causes of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other serious conditions.
Dr. Perlmutter likens the microorganisms in our intestines to superheroes, and for good reason. Specifically, the most beneficial microorganisms that assist in digestive processes are bacteria. Bacteria are responsible for a wide range of duties, and when added up together, they weigh about three to four pounds - about the same weight as the human brain. That fact alone begins to point towards the notion that we’ve grossly underestimated the presence of these superheroes.
Aside from the amount of space that they take up in your body, these bacteria are responsible for absorbing the nutrients that you eat, building up a barrier against harmful bacteria and viruses, and detoxifying our bodies. In other words, bacteria are largely responsible for protecting our bodies: many of the toxins ingested in our foods are fought off by them. Furthermore, the intestinal track is the largest immune system organ, and the healthy bacteria found there help to carry out the duties of keeping us healthy.
But bacteria’s role goes beyond that: they are also responsible for handling stress and regulating hormones, promoting restful sleep, and producing and releasing crucial enzymes and chemicals for the brain, including neurotransmitters. Bacteria also regulate the body’s inflammatory pathways, which correlates directly with risks for developing chronic illnesses.
On a daily basis, we’re exposed to countless toxins, germs, and chemicals that have the potential to wreak havoc on our bodies. Of course, our immune system is responsible for blocking these harmful agents, but it only works as well as we allow it to. The key component of maintaining a brain-healthy diet is balancing our immune system: it should be neither overactive nor underactive. There’s a balance that we must achieve; otherwise, inflammation takes place, creating the opportunity for deadly diseases or severe allergies to occur.
The purpose of this guide is to create a diet that will promote harmony within our intestines, which will transcend into our immune system and overall mental and physical wellbeing. Although we’ll soon discuss the foods that help us to strike that important balance, we must first understand the forces that deplete our good bacteria sources. For one thing, harmful substances have the potential to weaken - or even kill - our stores of helpful bacteria. While some obvious offenders such as antibiotics and environmental chemicals make the list, there are also some less-obvious sources, such as water that contains chlorine, and food ingredients such as sugar and gluten.
In addition to harmful substances, a lack of adequate nutrients can harm the balance of your microbiome. Failure to ingest the proper nutrients not only leads to a lack of good bacteria, but it also promotes an environment in which bad bacteria thrive.
Finally, stress is one of the greatest factors prohibiting the health of our gut and immune system. Though it’s general knowledge that stress can cause health issues, the direct link between gut health and stress makes it even more of an imperative issue that needs to be addressed.
All of these facts point to one thing: we must reassess our views of the microorganisms found in our intestines. While not an entirely pleasant topic to discuss, it’s essential for us to examine the importance of these bacteria in relation to how they shape our lives. Our Westernized diets, which are marked by lack of diversity and fiber, lead to a far lower supply of good bacteria than the typical diets found in other parts of the world. What’s worse is that those other countries also have far lower instances of Alzheimer’s disease. Remarkably, countries with higher levels of sanitation (and lower levels of parasites and less diversity of intestinal bacteria) have a much greater presence of Alzheimer’s. In other words, our obsession with cleanliness could, in part, be responsible for the development of certain diseases.
In fact, a University of Cambridge study found that exposure to microorganisms could be inversely related to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, many of our attempts to stay clean and healthy are often actually backwards - by maintaining a “balanced” diet, we could be eliminating a good portion of our beneficial bacteria, which leads to a weakened immune system, inflammation, and eventually, serious diseases.
The link between diversity in gut bacteria and Alzheimer’s prevalence seems to be quite obvious. Yet, this is only one portion of the equation. If lack of diverse gut bacteria has the potential to cause Alzheimer’s, then there’s also a great chance that risks go beyond the diseases that have been studied so far.
If bacteria are the supreme forces in regulating the health of our intestinal tracts, and our intestines also happen to be the largest organ in the immune system, then it goes without saying that it’s in our best interest to take care of these bacteria. In fact, enhancing and protecting the beneficial bacteria that reside in our intestines is perhaps the greatest step we can take in ensuring our health right now.