In recent years scientists have discovered that our gut contains a vast amount of bacteria which are called the microbiome. The number of genes in these bacteria is about 3.3 million whilst the human body has around 23.000. The total weight of the microbiome is about three pounds – the same as our brain, which is why it is also called the Second Brain.
One millilitre of colonic contents contains more bacteria than there are humans on this planet.
One of the important functions of the microbiome is to provide immunity (70% of our immune system is located in the gut), and this starts at birth. The birth canal is filled with lactobacilli – which prevent the growth of candida (which causes vaginal thrush). Lactobacilli are the first thing that enters the baby’s mouth during birth.
When mothers have C-sections the child does not get these beneficial lactobacilli. 80% of babies born via c-section are likely to develop asthma versus those born naturally, and they are also more likely to develop diarrhoea in the first year of life, have a tendency to be allergic to cow’s milk and have food intolerances.
Mothers milk also contains lactobacilli. They help to break down lactose, which is the major sugar in milk. The first milk also contains a lot of antibodies for the baby. Later breast milk contains carbohydrates (sugars) and prebiotics which provide food for the microbiome.
People often say they have a “gut feeling” and this is true as the brain is connected to our gut and vice versa.
The gut contains as many nerve cells as the spinal cord. The microbiome affects not only our nerves and immune system, but also our endocrine system. It modulates our emotions, desires and moods. The microbiome also produces neurotransmitters. Imbalances or deficiencies of neurotransmitters are known to cause, among other things, behavioural problems in children and psychiatric problems such as depression.
Environmental chemicals can change the gut microbiome. They can trigger inflammation and metabolic disorders.
Functional medicine is the new way of investigating how your body works and can often provide answers for chronic diseases.
Dr Oliver Frey, MD MRCGP