In the past I have written about various systems and models for leading a more productive life, creating an environment of deep work, organizing your kitchen workflow to save time and recently, to design a Life OS. But all these systems and models have one bottleneck, Us.
If we are not in the best state of mind and body all these systems will end up becoming a graveyard of web-apps, gadgets and kitchen tools. In this article, I want to bring to the spotlight a rising branch of science that gives us a better idea of how our thinking is shaped by an army of micro-organisms for whom our body is a home. Chiefly our gut.
Reading this article will
- make you aware of the importance of the gut microbes
- educate you on the basics and function of the gut-brain axis
- direct you to the source of your moods and things that make you less productive
- encourage you to take an active role in correcting it
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Gut Microbiome basics
Humans are not a single celled being, that much we understand intuitively. We are also not a being of homogeneous cellular clusters either. The human genome project reports that we comprise of diverse clusters designed for specific functions programmed by approximately 25000 genes.
This might sound like a lot until I tell you that the rice plant can have up to 63000 genes So what makes us so superior then? Where do all our complex emotions and unpredictables come from? It turns out that our brain has a tiny mafia running our energy production system. Just like the mafia it keeps tabs on our organs, acts as a consiglieri to the brain and occasionally skims off the top.
I am referring to the Microbiome, the micro organisms that symbiotically or otherwise live in us. Specifically the ones that live in our gut. Let me give you an idea of the world they’ve created within us.
With such a diverse ecosystem and such deep connection to the production of key hormones, the gut microbiome wield considerable influence over our body’s function. Let’s delve a bit deeper into that topic
Origin & Function
Babies in the mother’s womb are quite sterile and free from microbes, but get their first contact as they pass through the birth canal. We now understand that many of the complex sugars in breast milk were not designed to be broken down by the baby’s own system but by these microbes that have now started settling inside the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract.
This is the start of a beautiful friendship (a la Casablanca).
Soon this ecosystem spreads from the mouth to the anus and everything in between that regulates the processing of food in our system. One of the most important function directly attributed to them are the production of hormones using key food molecules.
These hormones determine when we feel energetic, anxious, sleepy, depressed or happy. The microbes also tell the brain the kind of food groups they want you to have.
We will talk a bit more about these hormones and their impact on our work later in this post. But what can we say about the gut microbiome from what we know so far?
Future & Implications
Our identity as humans and our moods and cravings are a shared space. This new understanding has led to the rapidly emerging field of psychobiotics. The medical research field is studying the impact of targeted prebiotic and probiotic supplementation to deal with conditions ranging from weight loss to Alzheimer’s.
I will say that we’re still a few sci-fi events away from getting pills that sharpen our cognitive function or makes us crave kale instead of pizza. But ignoring the role of the gut makes us blind to a world within us.
This is a good stage to address the relationship between the gut and our brain
What is the Gut brain Axis?
As touched upon in the infographic, the gut has more nerves that the spinal cord. It communicates with the brain through the Vagus nerve. This bi-directional link, based on exchange of information between the two, is referred to as the gut-brain axis. It is more important than you think.
Observations of the total information exchanged between the gut and the brain tells us that 90% of total data is being sent to the brain and the remainder are instructions received in return. That’s a surprisingly loaded ratio. It raises several questions of the importance of the gut’s role in our brain’s decision making process.
This supports the Consiglieri reference I was making earlier. The gut provides strong data banks of emotional & mood knowledge to the brain. This explains the influence it has over how we think and feel.
Would it be fair to say that the microbiome is doing some of our thinking for us? And how much of that thinking is nudging us towards action or inaction? Let’s get a little specific.
Impact on Productivity
To understand the role of the gut brain axis and its impact on productivity we need to revisit its function. We mentioned earlier that the gut is a factory for over 20 hormones, the raw materials are key food molecules. There is the clue to its role in productivity.
The gut has been called a “second brain” because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain does, like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid, all of which play a key role in regulating mood. – Harvard Health Publishing
Here are 3 examples of the cause effect relationship between the Gut-Brain axis and productivity. The table below follows the conversion of key food molecules (KFM) found in food that the gut bacteria converts to powerful chemicals that contribute to our productivity.
Key Food Molecule: Tryptophan
Source: Eggs, Chia Seeds
Converted into: Serotonin & Melatonin
Benefits: Clarity, Sound Sleep, Alertness
Key Food Molecule: Tyrosine
Source: Almonds, Lentils
Converted into: Dopamine & Epinephrine
Benefits: Adrenaline, Propensity to act
Key Food Molecule: Indole 3 Lactic Acid
Source: Fermented foods, Kimchi
Converted into: Indole Propionic Acid (IPA)
Benefits: Antioxidants, Longevity
Additionally the gut is also found to directly correlate with the production of the Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (A protein found in the brain and spinal cord).
This is an important contributor to learning & memory formation. Absence of this is linked with dementia while presence of this leads to a stronger cognitive and learning function
All of this points to the simple fact that playing an active role in nurturing our gut can help us feel more alert, active and tune the learning clusters of our brain. So here’s where I tell you how we’re messing that up (and how we can change that).
Marching towards progress has never involved so little marching. These elements I’ve listed below are widely accepted as the causes for disturbing the gut microbiome. All of them can be linked to modernization. I’ll try to be objective as we go through them.
One note diets
The microbiome consists of between 300 to 1000 types of bacteria. Some more prolific than others. But each cluster of these bacteria have specific functions. Many of them beneficial tot their host, us.
In turn they expect us to feed them specific types of foods. Some like sugars and starch, some like fats & proteins, some like fibers, you get the gist. But at an early age when our diet becomes a narrow spectrum dictated by what our parents decide to give us or our fussy nature we make an unconscious choice.
We feed a certain spectrum of bacteria at the cost of starving others. This starts to alter the composition of our gut. This has consequences.
Research tells us that the bacteria often decide what they want to eat and they set in motion the mechanism that affects our food choices. This in turn affects the kind of bacteria we grow and vice versa. Fortunately, this is not irreversible.
Worse than an imbalanced diet is a diet filled with artificial foods.
“Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food… “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?” – Michael Pollan
Artificial sweeteners, for instance, have shown a strong correlation with affecting the balance of your gut bacteria. They’ve been linked with irritable bowels (which has way worse implications than just visits to the toilet), weight gain and celiac disease.
Broad spectrum antibiotics
Hailed as one of the breakthroughs in modern medicine, antibiotics are now being mobbed by the spectrum of anti-vaxxers to MRSA researchers.
Antibiotics may still be humanity’s best bet against diseases but the ease with which it has been prescribed up to now has wreaked havoc with our gut.
Broad spectrum antibiotics, the kind that gets prescribed for an extra strong flu or throat infection, does not distinguish between good and bad microbes. Everything is collateral damage in the hurry to arrest infection. But this alters the microbiome be resetting their composition.
You might have noticed how you may feel a tenderness in your tummy, weak bowels or even nausea after a course of antibiotics. Now you know why.
Here’s an instance where our mind affects our gut. Intense episodes of stress lets the brain take drastic action within our body. It restricts resources available to certain functions of the body while redirecting them to others. Guess who picks the short straw? The gut.
Experimental observations tell us that during stress the bacterial wall within our GI tract breaks down. This weakens our capability to ingest and process food. This in turn leads to poor energy production and fat accumulation.
Next time you’re stress eating, take note.
With all these lifestyle generated issues interfering with the gut microbiome, what is our course of action?
Fortunately, all is not lost. A conscious perusal of the sources of damage point us to the remedy as well. But let us understand how these seemingly perennial “Top 3/5/10 things to do to be healthy” actually help our microbiome
Expand the variety in your diet
That’s the opposite of the One-note diet, so it makes sense. To delve deeper, it is now understood that many of the types of fiber we consume in our food were never meant to be broken down by our body but are meant for the gut bacteria.
We also know that about 10 – 15% of calories from our food are extracted by them. Some of the foods that promote healthy microbiome are:
- Complete proteins (Eggs, Tempeh, Edamame, Quinoa, Spirulina)
- Omega 3 (Fish, Chia Seed, Walnuts, Flax seed)
- Polyphenols (Dark Chocolate, Wine, Berries…sounds like a recipe in itself)
- Fiber (Pears, Avocado, Oats, Chia seeds)
- Probiotics (Yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut)
Exercise & Mindfulness
Our body’s functions are governed by a circadian rhythm (have written about it here) so are the microbiome’s. When we sleep, they do too. A well rested microbiome can repair itself well.
Exercise and Mindfulness help the body absorb our food better and reduce stress which in turn lets our gut bacteria do their job unimpaired.
While this article will not delve into the dangers of casually consuming multivitamins, we will talk about where supplementation can be useful.
We discussed the effects of antibiotics in our system. It is essential to take remedial action in such cases. Some people also suffer from systems that are unable to absorb certain vitamins and/or minerals from food. These are cases where a qualified medical advisor can list targeted supplementation to cover the gap.
It would help if you could reach out to a nutritionist to to know if you have any detectable deficiencies which need supplements. For the majority of others, supplementation should mean a diet rich in seeds, plant and fermented foods with emphasis on pre and pro-biotics.
While it might seem that this article is a bit left field, I consider it an essential part of work-life balance. There is a shift in the scientific community that now believes that diet has a bigger role to contribute to our health than exercise. The gut-brain axis is now the subject of a fledgling branch of medicine, Psychobiotics, which is promising to bring revolutionary solutions to Alzheimer’s, Dementia and autism amongst others.
All of this is bringing us back to the point that the health of our gut plays a significant role in the health of our mind as much of our body. Keeping our mind sharp is the first step of getting things done.
The simplest way to understand our relationship with the gut is to recognize that we are its earth and it is the garden within us. We take care of it and it does the same for us. Just like a garden, replanting or recomposition does not yield results overnight. But your patience will be rewarded with a healthier and more productive version of you.
I am including a wealth of sources if you wish to pursue this subject
Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function – Harvard Health Publishing
Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info