Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar? WHO STOLE THE COOKIES FROM THE COOKIE JAR?
Gastrointestinal microorganisms stole the cookies from the cookie jar. Gastrointestinal microorganisms stole the cookies from the cookie jar…no seriously, they inhabited my body, took over my brain and forced me to do it…
Lame “invasion of the body snatchers” explanation for a 1:00a.m. pantry raid? Or an ever-deepening understanding of how our bodies, minds and cravings actually work, supported by budding scientific research suggesting that our gut bacteria have a far greater influence over our health, our thoughts, our actions and our appetites than we ever previously imagined?
Does Your Microbiome Control Your Health…and Your Mind?
You share your human body with billions of microorganisms of various types, species and strains, which thrive by sharing in the booty of the foods you eat.
And if the thought of bacterial squatting seems unfair (or totally icky), rest assured that these creepy crawlers properly earn their keep, helping you break down your food, supporting good digestion and elimination, alleviating digestive problems, keeping harmful pathogens out, enhancing your immune system, minimizing the incidences of illness and disease, nurturing good brain health, providing crucial vitamins, regulating fat storage and so much more that we’re only just beginning to discover. We provide the room, bread and board, and in return, they pay their rent. Seems like a pretty fair deal.
However, new research on the human microbiome is starting to raise serious questions about who is actually in charge and running the show in there. We may beat them out in size, but they certainly beat us out in number (microbial DNA outnumbers our own human DNA by 10 to 1 inside the human body, and by 100 to 1 in our intestines).
Moreover, with the modern Western diet being what it is, your body’s not exactly a 5-star utopian vacation resort. It’s a dog-eat-dog micro-world, with different microbial species competing for space, nutrients and resources. Researchers have also begun tapping into various mechanisms that larger and more dominant microbial populations may be using inside our bodies to exert influence over our moods and behaviours, especially our eating behaviours.
Microbes Are Picky Eaters Too
Like larger plants and animals, different microbes prefer different sources of nutrients for their energy, to thrive and to reproduce. For example, gut flora like Prevotella have a preference for carbohydrate food sources, Bacteroidetes grow best from particular fats, Bifidobacteria populations thrive more heartily in the presence of dietary fiber, etc. Other microorganisms living in your body, like yeasts and pathogenic bacterium, thrive best off of processed food diets high in sugar, fats and refined grains. When the human host doesn’t eat enough of a specific microorganism’s preferred energy source, that specific species starts to die out, and can sometimes trigger virulence (when a microbe causes damage to the human host).
So things can start looking like a jungle in there. In an evolutionary fight to survive in the face of specific nutritional needs, limited resources and competing organisms, more dominant gut species and larger microbial populations try to gain the upper hand by sending signals to the human host to eat more of the specific foods that they thrive on, and that harm competing species.
How do they manage to send you these signals? When microbes break down foods, they release various products back into your body. Many of these substances have the ability to enter your blood stream, your brain and lymphatic system in order to influence internal processes that can trigger hunger, food cravings and metabolic processes, and even particular moods and emotions.
For example, in the presence of dietary fiber, some types of friendly gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have been shown to help speed up your metabolism, promote weight loss, dampen internal inflammation, modify gene expression, and boost mood and brain health. Some microbes produce chemicals that help to boost the brain’s capacity for new memories and learning. Other, less friendly microbes that thrive off sugar and processed foods produce substances that mimic hunger hormones in the body that interfere with your brain’s appetite signals. Some microbes produce neurotransmitters just like your brain can, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in the regulation of eating behaviours. Some microbes release blockers that interfere with your energy levels, induce brain fog and feelings of depression.
That’s where food cravings come in. Researchers are coming to believe that the microbial species with larger population sizes in your body require less resources to bully out their competitors, and so, they manage to exert more power over the processes that influence your behaviours, your cravings and your food preferences.
And then, these micro-gangs can trap you in a vicious cycle: when particular bacterial populations are allowed to grow out of balance and to become dominant, it leads to more intense food cravings for the sources of nutrition they love best. When you give in to these food cravings, you allow the bad bacterial populations to thrive even more, while also killing off even more competing bacterial populations. This leads to even more disproportionate microbial population growth, which leads to even more intense food cravings, and etc. Eventually, a microbial mafia starts to run the internal show, dragging your health and your weight down with it.
A Balanced Gut Creates Harmony for Your Health, Waist-line & Well-Being
Microbial mind-control is why we have muffin tops? It’s all so low-budget 1970s sci-fi. And yet, current research seems to support that there may be something to all this.
Studies have found that obese individuals tend to have much lower microbial diversity in their guts than leaner individuals, and to also experience more difficulty with intense food cravings. Another recent experiment showed that people who experience intense chocolate cravings have different gut microorganism compositions than non-chocolate cravers do. Several animal studies also demonstrate that simple shifts in the gut microbial populations in mice manage to completely change the types of foods the mice are attracted to and the amount of weight they gain.
But while this theory seems to suggest that we’re all at the mercy of these inner gut gang wars, the good news is that the relationship works both ways: just as dominant microorganisms try to boss around your eating, the foods you choose to eat have the power to influence which microorganisms become dominant enough to try bullying you around in the first place.
Find out which foods support the growth and maintenance of friendly health-enhancing flora in your gut here.
Your best bet, say researchers, is to maintain a high microbial diversity in your gut. Allowing a wide array of different friendly microorganisms to thrive inside your body seems to promote the most ideal and balanced environment for health and optimal functions in your body.
The simplest way to diversify your own gut bacteria is by diversifying your diet, including as many whole natural plant foods, and eliminating the foods that kill friendly gut bacteria and promote the dominance of unfriendly microbes.
5 Ways to Diversify Your Microbiome to Lose Weight & Get Healthy
The good bacteria in your gut thrive off of a variety of different forms of fiber called prebiotics (food for friendly biota), which are only found in unprocessed plant foods.
Include a large variety of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and ancient whole grains in your weekly menus. Also emphasize allium veggies (like garlic, onion, jicama, etc.) and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.), who’s naturally high sulphur content has shown very positive effects on microbiome health.
Also, eating seasonal foods helps to ensure that you are getting the freshest plant foods available, and that you are regularly rotating a larger diversity of foods in your diet.
- Don’t just rely on probiotic supplements.
Scientists still don’t completely understand how exactly all of the different types of microorganisms inside you interact with your body. Most store-bought probiotic supplements only contain a selected few friendly bacterial strains, whereas the variety of microbiota that dwell in your body are in the thousands.
Also, it’s not just about replenishing your gut bacteria, but also about keeping those good bacteria alive and healthily thriving. Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement regularly could help to get the ball rolling, but it’s critical that you also eat a diverse diet of high-fiber plant foods (prebiotics) and fermented foods to ensure a healthy microbiome.
Try this prebiotic-rich comfort dish: Sautéed Jerusalem Artichoke with Garlic & Thyme
- Eliminate sugar, refined foods and processed foods.
While high-fiber whole plant foods nourish good gut bacteria, diets high in fat, sugar, processed and refined foods kill good bacteria, while also feeding unfriendly gut bacteria that have been linked to obesity and health issues.
Interestingly, studies show that exercise can promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Include weekly exercise and daily activity in to your routine.
- Avoid artificial chemicals.
Artificial chemicals used in food coloring, sweeteners, preservatives, taste enhancers, and even in food and beverage containers have been shown to kill healthy gut bacteria and have been linked to weight gain. Avoid foods with artificial ingredients and that are stored in plastic or aluminum containers.