Out of the (water) closet

I have finished reading Gut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ by Giulia Enders. It has challenged my identity. The microbes in me out-number my human cells ten times and I have about 100 trillion microbes in my gut! So am I a person, or a colony? Perhaps I should refer to myself (us) as “we”.

Given that I am out-numbered, how do these microbes influence my behaviour and my health? Rodents infected with the toxoplasmata protozoa lose their fears of cats. This is not a good for survival and Giulia Andrea reports that behaviour of humans infected with toxoplasmata changes too (we get the infection from cats). For example, the risk of being involved in a car accident is increased in infected people, especially in the early active stages of infection.

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Rodents infected with toxoplasmata lose their fear of cats (image from Nature)

My gut bacteria influence my mental and physical well-being and influence what I choose to eat. A recent Scientific American article confirms this.

Gut microbes have also been shown to influence diet and behavior as well as anxiety, depression, hypertension and a variety of other conditions.

Our relationship with our gut biome has evolved over millennia. These are common to all people, with some regional variations. For example, the micro biome of Japanese have   borrowed a gene from marine microorganisms to help breakdown seaweed. Giulia Enders suggests that if we had long enough, our micro biome would adapt to the highly processed foods of the Western diet. Allergies and food intolerances may be caused by our digestive system’s inability to process the foods we are eating. Michael Pollan states the solution succinctly “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

To help us rehabilitate our digestion and repopulate the gut with a health-enhancing micro biome we have two options, probiotics and pre-biotics.

Probiotics

Most of us are familiar with these – typically fermented foods containing billions of beneficial bacteria. Common examples are yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Probiotic supplements are also available. These are great, but need to be frequently  consumed to maintain the benefits.

Prebiotics

These are foods that include residues that make the journey through to the lower gut to sustain beneficial micro-organisms. Dr Frank Jackson tapes about the benefits of probiotics in this video.

His website has a list of the top 11 prebiotic foods. They are listed here with their percentage of fibre (by weight).

  1. raw chicory root (65%)
  2. raw Jerusalem artichoke (31.5%)
  3. raw dandelion greens (24.5%)
  4. raw garlic (17.5%)
  5. raw leeks (11.7%)
  6. raw onion (8.6%)
  7. cooked onion ( 5%)
  8. raw asparagus (5%)
  9. raw wheat bran (5%)
  10. baked wheat flour (4.8%)
  11. raw banana (1%)

This brings us back to local food – food you can grow in your garden.

My digestive system is approximately 7 metres long. Sometimes I am more interested in pandering to the first 100 mm or so – the bit where I can taste the food, rather than the other 6.9 metres. Giulia Anders book teaches us to take more notice of the other end of our digestive system. Perhaps we need to talk more about our digestive systems. You won’t have to go too deep in your Facebook feed to find someone talking about food – maybe we should be less embarrassed about talking about digestive system output- but no selfies please :-).