We tend to think of ourselves as highly independent creatures that interact with others in our environment. But some very interesting new research puts another twist on our self image. As it turns out, the “lowly bacteria,” may turn out to have more “say” in who we are than we would like to believe. “Microbiome” is the new term used to describe the complex communities of bacteria and other organisms which live in our bodies, and this new area of research is revolutionizing the way we think of ourselves and our health.

There is a “Human Microbiome Project,” sponsored by the National Institute of Health that “aims to characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of these microbes in human health and disease.”

We already know that “beneficial flora” in our digestive tract are vital to our health, assisting us in digestion, manufacturing vitamins, and protecting our digestive system from the overgrowth of disease-causing organisms. Research is now suggesting that their influence is more far reaching and may help determine our mental states, and even the development of our brains during infancy.

Gut Bacteria “Talk” to Genes

A recent study published in the periodical “Neurogastroenterology and Motility,” studied the performance of mice that lacked gut bacteria and normal mice. They found that the mice without bacteria engaged in higher anxiety and risk related behaviors than normal mice, and this behavior was accompanied by chemical changes in the brains of the mice. Bacteria colonize the gut in the days following birth during a sensitive period of brain development, and apparently influence behavior by inducing changes in the expression of certain genes.

This is a mind-bending finding! Gut bacteria “talk” to genes (the DNA present in every living organism), and can influence brain development, mental states, and behavior, at least in mice. We already know that there is communication between the “gut” and the brain in humans, as seratonin, one of the main brain chemicals that influences mood actually has its highest concentration in our digestive tract. Learn more about digestive health by downloading a complimentary wellness guide.

Another interesting twist found in research on mice suggests that bacteria also influence the tendency to store fat and become obese. They found that certain strains of bacteria were found in high concentrations in the gut of obese mice, and different strains in mice that were thin. This raises the possibility of developing probiotic supplements for humans that change the bacteria toward the variety associated with “thinness.” More research needs to be done; however this is another clue that bacteria are very much a part of “us” and how we look, feel and think.

What This Means on a Practical Level

Limit antibiotic use: Protect your gut bacteria by avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in an epidemic of children and adults who lack healthy gut bacteria. Prevent infection by healthy dietary practices. If your children have repeated colds and ear infections, take them off of sugar, dairy and gluten. This will prevent a large percentage of infections! Breastfeeding helps your infant develop a good population of healthy gut bacteria and protects your infant against disease. If you are not able to breast feed, consider giving your infant appropriate probiotics that are specific for infants. These are not the same as the adult variety, so do not substitute.

Add cultured vegetables to your diet: Build your healthy gut bacteria by eating fermented foods such as unsweetened or homemade kefir, and raw cultured vegetables (not pasteurized). There are many resources online for instructions on making your own cultured vegetables, and you can find them at many health food stores. These foods contain healthy bacteria, so daily consumption can help you maintain your own healthy bacteria. You can also take a good probiotic which contains multiple types of bacteria including Lactobacillus acidophilis and Bifidobacterium. For more information about the beneficial nutrients found in vegetables and other whole foods, visit www.dreliaz.org/health-solutions/dr-eliaz-recommends/diet-nutrition/general.

Avoid processed foods: Avoid diet and lifestyle factors that damage healthy bacteria, such as overconsumption of sugar and white flour products, and overuse of alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. Use organic and unprocessed foods whenever possible to avoid chemical additives and pesticides.

Is it time to place a “crown” upon the “heads” of the lowly bacteria? We certainly cannot live without them, and they in turn cannot live without us. It is clearer now than ever before that we are indeed a co-operative community. Be sure to engage in these simple practices to keep yourself and “your” bacteria happy and healthy. For more valuable health information, visit www.dreliaz.org.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Isaac Eliaz is a respected author, lecturer, researcher, product formulator, and clinical practitioner. He has been a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s. Dr. Eliaz is a frequent guest lecturer on integrative medical approaches to health, immune enhancement, and cancer prevention and treatment.