I don’t know about you, but when I hear “gut bacteria,” I get a little grossed out. Anything with the word “bacteria” has to be bad, right? Wrong.
Aside from their name, gut bacteria are pretty awesome.
“Why are they awesome?” you ask. They are microorganisms in our intestines that help our digestive and immune system, says Dr. David Dragoo, M.D., a health expert at Money Crashers. In fact, we can’t survive without gut bacteria, says Kristi King, senior dietician at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Gut bacteria, a.ka. gut flora, also help make B vitamins and vitamin K. “You can think of it as another ‘organ’ in the body – it is just as important to keep healthy as the heart, lungs and brain,” King says.
Another interesting thing about gut bacteria is that they seem to be pretty crafty. Researchers have recently found that gut bacteria do whatever it takes to survive.
Dr. Ines Thiele and researchers at Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine at the University of Luxembourg, using computer models, found that gut bacteria respond to changes in their environment, such as lower oxygen levels and nutrient availability.
Basically, our gut is like a war zone — microorganisms compete with each other and overthrow one another. But when times get tough, gut bacteria switch to a cooperative lifestyle and help other species survive. It’s like Darwin’s theories at work in our gut. Crazy, right?
“It is survival of the fittest in there, that is for sure!” King says.
King says our diet also has a say in whether or not gut bacteria survive. Eating foods containing good bacteria can crowd out the bad bacteria.
It sounds like gut bacteria are pretty darn smart. But, according to Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security in Maryland, it turns out they aren’t necessarily showing intelligence; they are showing behavior as a result of billions of years of evolutionary adaptation.
Scientist Almut Heinken, who works with Thiele’s group, used a computer model to test how 11 bacterial species act when human small intestinal cells are present. That’s when he saw bacteria help each other when their environment changes.
Heinken explains in a statement: “They emit substances that make it easier for otherwise outcompeted species to survive. And they, too, receive substances they wouldn’t get enough of under the unfavourable living conditions.”
Our metabolism plays an important role in how bacteria function in different sections of our gut. Parts of the small intestine has more oxygen than the other, and if the bacteria play nice when oxygen levels decrease, they function better and help us digest our food.
These findings are important because diet and digestion can play a role in whether or not we get diseases, and if gut bacteria are happy with their environment, then they are more likely to help us fight disease.
Scientists at LCSB hope to understand our gut’s ecosystem and plan to add more bacterial species to their computer models.
“This new information is significant because it shows that if doctors and other medical practitioners are able to adjust the living conditions for these gut bacteria (through a change in diet, for example) that the possibility exists to help ward off diseases before they are contracted,” Dragoo says.
Scientists have way more to learn about gut bacteria, but I know I’m thankful to those microorganisms for keeping us alive.
“The complexity of the gut microbiota is beyond what I think even scientists can begin to comprehend,” King says. “We know that it is affected by a variety of things such as diet, weight and environment (such as where you live). It seems that each individual has a unique gut flora profile. The question is, how do we determine the exact ‘perfect gut’? And given the multifactorial variables, that task seems very daunting.”