Bacteria to the future


Greetings, don’t worry I chided myself recently due to the infrequency with which I have been updating my blog. In my substantial defence, as was outlined in my previous entry I have struggled somewhat of late with my health. Now before you start dropping to your knees and doing novenas I am fine. I seemed to have succumbed to that stubborn virus doing the rounds (isn’t there always one) at the beginning of February and was still wrestling with it until the third week of March!! To say it was frustrating and discommoding was an understatement but my frustration gave way to acceptance fairly quickly because the mere thought of exercise fatigued me. Yes there comes a point when you just have to let the body do its thing. So in all, I took about 5 weeks off training which is the longest time I have been inactive for 20 years. I even took 2 sick days!! This was a big deal as I hadn’t taken a sick day in about 6 or 7 years.

So there were two trips to the doctor who ironically enough had been ill himself with a similar ailment. He prescribed steroids the first time and a brief course of antibiotics on the second visit, more on this later.

The strain of virus I had, affected my chest with a niggling cough but more than that it sapped my energy. Feeling listless is very alien to me. I generally have boundless levels of energy and can survive easily on 5 hours sleep no bother. The last few weeks however would be characterised by an unfamiliar malaise which could be attributed to the virus in my system. Eventually my energy levels returned to normal and I’m back training now thank goodness, but in the aftermath of the illness and having taken a brief course of antibiotics I elected to take some probiotics

The illness prompted me to put on my biochemists hat and investigate further. I happened to be in the book shop when I saw The Psychobiotic Revolution on sale. The premise of the book fascinated me in that it suggested our gut bacteria were in constant dialogue with the brain and could influence diet, mood as well as immunity.  It seems our microbiota (the name given to our gut bacteria ) changes constantly based on our diet and directly influences that exact diet through cravings, it also influences our moods through the use of neurotransmitters that reach the brain via the vagus nerve and is instrumental in our ability to fight disease both short term and chronic.

Above I referenced having been put on antibiotics for a short period of time despite my doctor being fairly sure I was suffering a viral infection. Perhaps he was hedging his bets or trying to placate his patient by writing a prescription so as avoid leaving the surgery empty handed. The trouble with this is that antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria in the gut and are useless at killing viruses. We are instructed to take probiotics so as to attempt to reestablish the bacterial homeostasis that existed before the course of treatment. The problem with this is every successive course of antibiotics further disrupts and complicates an already highly complex microbiota status quo.

There is always a war going on in your gut between harmful pathogens and the good bacteria like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. When your good bacteria are thrown off kilter you are open to ill health in the form of systemic acute and chronic infections, inflammation, autoimmune disease, craving unhealthy foods and alarmingly depression and anxiety.

What I find very interesting is that our diet is very much dictated to us by our gut bacteria. If we get sugar cravings it is partially because the brain associates sugar with dopamine release. Sugar is also an instant source of energy which is always valuable to the muscles but it is also a food source for the bad bacteria in our gut. The argument here is that we have overlooked the huge influence gut bacteria has on our food choices. When you reach for pizza and a coke its actually the bacteria influencing your choices via neurotransmitters and not actually you. The result is the bacteria that crave sugar become satiated and begin to quickly outnumber the good bacteria and before long you are overweight, addicted to sugary foods. A byproduct of such an overproliferation of bad gut bacteria is chronic disease plus depression and anxiety.

It’s no coincidence that obesity has become an epidemic at a time when western diets have been so laden with processed foods. It is also no coincidence that anxiety and depression have become so ubiquitous when we are consuming more sugar and unnatural food than ever. One of the arguments made in the book is that depression and or anxiety often accompanies chronic illness and can actually be a precursor to illness. The most compelling thesis is that by treating a person with a particular strain or combination of strains of bacteria you can treat the disease plus the accompanying anxiety / depression.  The book gives hundreds of citations as evidence that the health of your microbiota can be enhanced benefitting your physiology and your neurochemistry. Targeting the gut brain axis is also seen as the key to the development of new psychotropics that will treat depression and anxiety conditions.

Apologies for the heavy science but it seems revelatory to me that these little single celled organisms can have such an influence on not just our physical well being but also our mental wellbeing. Certainly there is still much research to be done, but if simply adopting a balanced diet laden with fresh fruit and veg and probiotics while eschewing processed foods and refined sugar can bring me immunological plus mental health benefits then I am all for it. Check out the book if you’d like to know more, by the way this isn’t an advert in any way, merely a subject I thought would be of interest.