What would you say if we told you there was a whole new organ inside your body you’d never heard of? You’d be pretty shocked, right? Well, according to scientists, there is –and it’s sitting right inside your stomach, dictating everything from your moods to what kind of pants you put on today.
Whatever your intestinal issue, you’re in good company: 90 per cent of Australian women suffer from some form of digestive disorder, according to 2010 research by Galaxy*. Just thinking about it is enough to bring on a stomach ache – and we’d know.
Australian women chalk up some of the highest rates of gut-related issues in the world, something the experts blame on stress, bad diet and, er, hygiene (more on that shortly). And this isn’t just a pain in the backside:
“Sufferers of bloating often report feeling irritable, uncomfortable and unattractive,” says nutritionist Zoe Bingley-Pullin.
Can’t say we blame them. Yet despite this, close to half of these women do nothing to relieve their symptoms.
But there’s no need to start shopping for elastic waistbands. Back in 2006, researchers from the National University of Ireland claimed they’d discovered a “forgotten organ in your gut” that could hold the key to being bloat-free and happy on the inside.
OK, this “organ” is a little different –it’s actually a giant mass of bacterial cells or “intestinal microflora” – but an improved understanding of this hidden organ is so important to good digestive health, scientists say it’s deserving of its newfound status all the same.
First, a little lesson in bacterial biology: bugs aren’t bad – they’ve just had negative PR, says Professor Peter Gibson, head of medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University.
Don’t look now, but several million are writhing around your face as you read this. Billions more are in your mouth, too, feeding and breeding with staggering speed. But that’s nothing compared to the mind-blowingly vast empire in your digestive tract: one hundred trillion creatures live there in an intricate microscopic ecosystem as complex and wildly diverse as any on this planet.
Though scientists have a way to go before they identify all the species, we house around 400 different types – both “good” and “bad” – who keep each other in check via constant competition for food and space.
You weren’t always a human petri dish, though. In fact, “your insides were effectively sterile when you were first born,” says Prof. Gibson. But your first few months of life were busy ones: each breath you took, along with breast milk and anything else you managed to shove in your mouth, helped transfer bacteria into your body, where they got busy making their way to your digestive tract, creating bacterial babies, pioneering a tiny settlement and training your immune system to adopt them as “friends”.
By the time you were six months old, you had yourself an established bacterial colony; as unique to you as the prints on your fingers. And by adulthood, that colony had evolved into a fully-fledged “organ” – a giant, microbial civilisation clocking in at a huge one-and-a-half kilos – roughly the same weight as your other largest organ, the liver. Or a kitten.
It might sound gross, but this colonial mass is a very good thing, says Dr Tim Crowe, a nutrition scientist from Melbourne’s Deakin University – because providing a home for your internal community has some serious rental returns. For starters, they contribute to up to 70 per cent of your immune system. Why?
“Your intestinal wall is a physical barrier between everything you ingest and your bloodstream,” Dr Crowe says. “It’s like a piece of mesh.”
Good bacteria weave into that mesh; keeping it stitched up against disease-causing bacteria that pass through your system every day. Other benefits of intestinal flora: they help you break down food, giving you access to vital nutrients you otherwise wouldn’t get. And they probably stop your weight from plummeting dangerously low at the same time – in one study, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, US, rats raised in a sterile, bacteria-free environment had to eat 30 per cent more kilojoules just to maintain the same weight as their “normal” counterparts.
Your bacteria collection also produces special types of cell-protecting, anti-ageing short-chain fatty acids when they metabolise nutrients –“by-products we can’t otherwise get when we eat,” explains Dr Crowe.
On the list goes: like a giant pick ’n’ mix, different species of bacteria offer distinct benefits, some prevent inflammation, some produce cancer-fighting isoflavones, some generate essential vitamins, some manage cholesterol, some regulate the amount of serotonin you absorb, helping protect you from depression and anxiety.
There’s just one pitfall in all of this: we’re not leading very flora-friendly lives. Health-obliterating habits like scoffing back processed foods, binge drinking, overloading on antibiotics and OD-ing on stress can eliminate good bacteria.
Short-term, this causes internal anarchy: bad bacteria start running amok inside you; rapidly multiplying, producing toxic (and toxic-smelling) compounds like hydrogen sulphide, and causing symptoms like bloating, cramping and diarrhoea.
And when you make these habits a long-term gig – say, by working a high-stress job or relying on take-away more often than not – the results aren’t pretty. Good bacteria die off, leaving holes in your intestinal walls and increasing the risk of pathogens (infectious germs) creeping through to your bloodstream.
“When our flora is in good shape, bad bacteria and toxins can come in and pass through and be expelled when you poo,” says Dr Crowe. “But if it’s in bad shape the mesh starts looking holey – that’s when bad bacteria can penetrate through.”
At the same time, infectious bacterial populations in our systems can swell. The balance of your population shifts, from one dominant type to another and nasties such as E. coli sense that you’re stressed out and start to power up their potency in anticipation of an opportunity to invade.
All of which sets the scene for sickness and increases your risk of everything digestively dysfunctional – from diarrhoea and gastroenteritis to IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Even if you follow a WH-friendly life, scientists say you can still be at risk of intestinal issues – it seems we’re too clean these days.
“Humans have co-evolved with bacteria – they’re ‘old friends’ of ours,” explains Dr Christopher Lowry from the University of Colorado, US, who has spent the past 12 years researching the fun date night topic of the human-bacteria relationship.
Up until we all started spending hours tapping away on keyboards in cubicles and washing our hands with antibacterial gel, we were exposed to high volumes of beneficial bacteria from water and soil because we spent most of our time outdoors.
“But thanks to urbanisation, industrialisation and ‘hygiene’, we’ve now taken these bacteria out of our environment,” he says. Big problem: exposure to bacteria is what teaches your body to know the difference between “normal” bugs and a code-red invasion, and without it, your immune system just might mistake a harmless substance (like, say, food) for a dangerous intruder.
Got yourself a food allergy? You’re not the only one – rates are rapidly rising in “clean” countries like Australia, as are other related digestive issues like coeliac disease and Crohn’s. And women get the shorter end of the germ-free stick, according to 2010 research in Social Science & Medicine – we spent less time getting amongst it in the backyard than our brothers did as kids; resulting in lower exposure to beneficial bacteria and higher risk of immune-related disorders.
Digestion and mental health
As well as regulating your food digestion and keeping you in your skinny jeans, your forgotten organ is also linked to another huge part of your every day – your emotions. Consider your gut like an internal “face”, says Professor Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist and Director of the Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health at University of California, US – just like the one on your noggin, it frowns, grimaces and makes other expressions based on how you’re feeling.
“When you’re angry, your gut contracts and goes into knots and depletes your fluid, and if you’re depressed it goes the opposite way,” he explains.
In fact, Prof. Mayer says your innards are so finely tuned to the workings of your brain that scientists often refer to the two as a single entity: the “brain-gut axis”. That’s why you get butterflies when you’re excited, and knots when you’re anxious – and might explain why chronic stress is so often a player in chronic gut disorders.
“Stress plays a role in about 80 per cent of my patients,” says Prof. Mayer.
Freaking out also leads to stressed bacteria, kick-starting a vicious cycle that not only has you reaching for the Mylanta, but puts you at greater risk of more stress, too. It works like this: “around 95 per cent of your body’s serotonin (the mood-regulating hormone) is located in the gut.
Throw the bacterial balance out of whack, and you throw off your mood-regulating procedure, says Dr Lowry – tipping you towards a crappy state of mind and symptoms like diarrhoea (linked to too much serotonin in the gut) and constipation (too little). Both of which link back to mental disorders themselves, the former to anxiety; the latter to depression, says Prof. Mayer.
However, the fact that your state of mind, digestion and bacteria are in such close cahoots can work in your favour. Research shows that improving just one of those aspects has flow-on benefits in the other two areas, and countless studies have shown a link between improved bacterial health and improved digestive health.
“There is absolutely a direct correlation between a healthy mental state and healthy flora,” says Prof. Lowry.
So it’s official – bugs are big news. But exactly how do you boost their health, and reap all these benefits? Adding a daily probiotic to your routine is a good start: research published in the Journal of Nutrition involving nearly 1500 people found that any commercially available supplement will have a positive impact on your digestive health within just a few days. (They all contain “friendly” bacterial species, so you’ll help tip the balance in favour of good, no matter which one you take.)
Another study showed that popping a probiotic supplement for 30 days resulted in better sleep, improved problem-solving skills, fewer symptoms of depression and lower levels of anger in healthy volunteers. So it’s a worthwhile move all round. Naomi Campbell take note.
A daily serve of yoghurt is another no-brainer, says Dr Crowe.
“It’s filled with vitamins and nutrients, as well as beneficial bacteria.”
All yoghurts also contain L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus, two strains that are unpronounceable but can combat symptoms of lactose intolerance – think gas, bloating and discomfort. (Just make sure you stick to a brand that contains “live and active cultures”, as some are made with active cultures, but they may have been heat-treated, which kills off the bacteria.