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  • Scripps Health

Making friends with your microbiome

Why gut bacteria is vital to your health

At some level, people have always suspected there’s a relationship between the brain and the stomach. Consider phrases like “gut instinct” or “gut feeling.” An avalanche of research is confirming this intuition, adding terms like “gut-brain axis” to the mix. Every month, new studies offer additional evidence for this profound connection.

But it’s not just two human organs talking to each other. The gut is colonized by around 100 trillion microbes — including thousands of different bacterial, fungal and viral species — that play a critical role in this constant chatter. A balanced microbial ecosystem can support good health, helping our bodies modulate hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammation and even pain.

On the other hand, an imbalanced system may play roles in cancer, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, depression and many other conditions.

“We are recognizing that when we call the gut ‘the second brain,’ it may actually be the first one,” says Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. “This is because what we eat — or don’t eat — can have a significant impact on gut inflammation and the makeup of our gut microbiome, which can send signals to the brain that ultimately affect many aspects of our health, our mood and how we deal with stress and pain.”

Diet and disease

Gut microbes have long been pigeonholed as either good or bad, but that’s turning out to be a major oversimplification. Like people, gut microbes have their own self-interests to look after, such as finding food and making more microbes. As long as their interests coincide with ours, everything is in balance — a condition scientists call “homeostasis.” But if the system loses homeostasis, bad things can happen.