Centre of health: the gut
Nobody really feels good when their bowels are complaining, creating pain or bubbling. Our well-being is considerably dependent on the proper functioning of the intestines. The intestines and the mini-cosmos living there are a genuine miracle, a symbiosis which has a defining influence on our health.
Imagine the following situation: you are sitting in an opera looking forward to Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The orchestra starts to play, the cast takes to the stage, but unfortunately Papageno and the Queen of the Night have fallen ill. Most of the orchestra is there, but the flutes, the violins and the conductor are not present. The performance has to begin without these players. Wouldn’t you probably leave after the first act, disappointed and angry? You would complain, because you expected a harmonious evening in which all of the singers and musicians interacted perfectly.
The bowels function in exactly the same way as a large ensemble in which all the players have a specific role. In the bowels these players are not creative artists, but they are highly active and specialised beings from a biological perspective: bacteria which fill the organ with life. Harmony and balance also have to predominate in the mini-cosmos of our bowels in order to avoid symptoms, irritation or illness.
The basis for health and well-being
Bacteria and microorganisms are omnipresent. They live on our skin, in our noses, and in the bowels. Our digestive tract is home to around 100 trillion bacteria with a considerable weight of up to 2 kilos. Medical science describes the entire microorganisms in the human body as the microbiome. Life in the intestines has become highly interesting to medicine in recent years.
For a long time the bowels were seen as a largely dispensable organ. Around 100 years ago, the surgeon to the British royal family, Sir Arbuthnot Lane, assumed that the poisoning of our body proceeded from the large intestine, and that it would be best to remove it, even if no disease was present. Fortunately, this essential organ has since received new significance with the development of holistic medicine and thanks to the findings of doctors and scientists such as Ilya Metschnikoff or F.X. Mayr. "The bowels are to the human being what the roots are for a tree,” was how F.X. Mayr put it. New scientific studies have underlined this view.
As in any ensemble or team, the bacteria of the intestinal microbiome have specific functions. 'Good’ bacteria ensure that the mucus membrane of the bowels remains clean, that digestion and the immune system work perfectly, and that pathogens are combated. These ‘goodies’ protect us from infections by changing the pH value of the gut flora and building up a dense barrier so that nasty intruders have no chance of survival. They also promote the formation of immunoglobulin a, which strengthens the mucosal linings and can thus prevent allergies from occurring. According to the latest research, the intestinal microbiome has many other functions too – and more and more are being discovered: for example, it influences our nervous system, our perception of pain, and the way our food is utilised.
The goodies and the others
The complex microbiome of the human intestines contains more than a hundred times more information than the human genome. Decoding it, in other words recognising and explaining the countless strains and groups of bacteria, has only become possible thanks to sequencing, which is a technique from biotechnology with which human genetic material has been able to be decoded since the start of the third millennia. In doing so it has been recognised that there are so-called Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, which are ideally present in equal amounts in the bowels so that we can use our food optimally – in other words neither remaining very thin and excreting everything unused, nor becoming seriously overweight because every salad leaf is stored in the hips as fat. Varying amounts of bacteria live in the different sections of our bowels. The duodenum, for example, is less well-populated because the environment there is too acidic – they wouldn’t be able to survive. The best-known of the ‘good’ bacteria, lactobacillus, are found in the small intestines, as are enterococcus, which are important for the immune system. Most bacteria feel at home in the large intestine – these are largely the ‘good’ bifidobacteria, although putrefactive bacteria are also present there.
The strength of a tree comes from its roots – the strength of humans from their bowels.
Highly active and helpful
Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria are extremely helpful in the struggle against pathogenic or potentially unpleasant bacteria. They free the intestines and the villi from rotting remains of food and build up a barrier on the intestinal mucous membrane so that poisons and harmful substances cannot enter the body via the bloodstream. In addition, they promote the production of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids and essential fatty acids. Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria are thus highly-active intestinal bacteria which can overcome the acidic gastrointestinal passage and move as far the large intestine. It is important for the entire bowels that ‘good’ bacteria predominate. This can be supported by pre- or robotic foods or products. Many of the so-called probiotic bacteria have been well research for around 100 years now.
They can combat pathogens which cause diarrhoea, support digestion via enzyme production, or also stabilise the immune system and therefore serve as a protective barrier against allergies, neurodermatitis or asthma. However, allergens can also enter the bloodstream via a so-called leaky gut. This can occur when the body is weakened, for example by antibiotics or stress, and because a large part of the bacteria have thus been killed off and the mucus membrane lining the gut has been damaged. In that case neither our immune system nor other protection mechanisms work, and we suddenly suffer from hay fever or rashes.
The bowels are a highly sensitive organ which can react to a change in a single strain of bacteria with changes in the entire microbiome. There are already clear indications from research that bacterial imbalance can be the cause of chronic bowel inflammation, obesity, diabetes, cancer, rheumatics, asthma and many autoimmune diseases, and that this even plays a role in mental/emotional problems. Current research thus believes that our microbiome has great potential to maintain health – as long as it is strong enough and well-balanced.
When the bowels suffer
By now there are excellent studies which show that infectious diseases have receded in the past 20 years due to antibiotics. However, the number of chronic inflammations (such as asthma, type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis) has risen to the same extent. Research into infections also shows that the excessive and erroneous intake of antibiotics has led to great problems. In many hospitals there are infections with bacteria resistant to antibiotics such the diarrhoea bug clostridium dificile. The reason for this is that antibiotics destroy not only harmful, but also beneficial bacteria, resulting in a sort of collateral damage. At the same time, many patients develop genes which are resistant to antibiotics and which permanently disrupt the intestinal microbiome, presumably making people more susceptible to autoimmune reactions. Before the development of antibiotics, these diseases did not occur to the extent which they do today. It can thus be concluded that recently discovered drugs have led to a massive change in the microbiome. Many people these days suffer from immune deficits or autoimmune disorders which are difficult to treat. This is why an increasing number of doctors are convinced that chronic illnesses in particular can be combated by means of a healthy gut flora.
“Bowels calling brain”
There is a lively exchange of information between the bowels and the brain. Changes to the microbiome can thus also lead to changes in brain functions and in behaviour. Studies show that an imbalance of intestinal bacteria is present in some psychiatric disorders. In the case of neuropsychiatric disorders such as multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, belly ache, anxiety disorders, depression, a tendency to become stressed easily, chronic exhaustion and autism, there is clinical data which confirms the correlation between these conditions and the state of the gut flora. This can be explained by the complicated interaction between the intestinal microbiome and the sensitive messenger substances in the brain which convey information. Scientists have established that important hormones such as the happiness hormone serotonin are produced with the aid of the inhabitants of our bowels. These messenger substances can bring about changes in behaviour and can control emotions – the communications channel begins in the bowels, where hormones cooperate with nerves.
Beneficial bowel inhabitants need the best food
Our food has an important influence on our intestinal microbiome. For example, some strains of bacteria are more common in overweight people than in thin people. The interaction between different strains of bacteria is also responsible for feelings of hunger or fullness. The intestinal microbiome not only regulates our digestion, it also helps to break down our food in such a way that vitamins and trace elements can be made available to our bodies. This is of decisive importance for the maintenance of our health, because it is no use eating healthy food or other vital substances if we excrete them again undigested. However, we not only need good nutrition; the residents of the bowels need the right food. For them, prebiotic foods are important, in other words fibre which promotes the activity of the bacteria. Chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, salsify or artichokes contain plentiful amounts of prebiotics, which can of course also be obtained from a pharmacy. However, if our gut flora has been damaged by frequent doses of medication, stress or poor nutrition, we have to consume the most important bacterial strains for the bowels in another way. And not just in one way, but in various ways. It is particularly important to ingest those bacteria which can really penetrate into the small and large intestines and are not already destroyed by stomach acid. In the past 20 years, research has found out a lot about the intestinal microbiome and its effects on our health. Only an understanding of the interaction between our intestinal bacteria makes comprehensive prevention and therapy possible. However, this scientific discipline is still fairly new and there is still a great deal to discover and decipher. For example, which bacteria settle in our gut depends on nutrition, lifestyles and circumstances and the intake of medication, but the geographic origin of a person also has an influence on life in the intestines. Africans or Asians thus have a different microbiome to Central Europeans, for example. The microbiome is a gigantic cosmos in which complex processes take place – an exciting new territory in which medical science can still experience many things which can help us all to improve our heath. One thing is clear: the bowels, a previously neglected organ, have tremendous potential to conduct body, mind and soul. Like in an excellent orchestra which produces harmony in perfect interplay.