The human microbiome (found on the surface of the skin as well as all organs/tubes in the body that are exposed to air) has a profound effect not only on our physical but also on our mental health. Did you know that the total DNA of all the microbes in a healthy body is 200 times the human DNA? And more importantly, some of those microbial genes not only help the microbes themselves but they also help us!
Where do we get the microbiome from?
It is considered that the baby in the womb is sterile. It is not until birth that the baby has its first exposure to the mother's microbiome while passing through the virginal canal. That, together with the microbiome in the breast milk, plays a crucial role in the onset of the immune system development. (Hence, babies born through Caesarean and/or not breast-fed have weaker immune systems). Later on in life, the microbiome is constantly being influenced by exposure to the environment. (Thus, over-sterilization and the constant use of anti-microbial soaps, etc. affects negatively the development of the human microbiome). One interesting thing to note here is that playing with dogs (but not with cats!) helps build a healthy microbiome. And last but not least, proper nutrition and avoidance of medication is another factor in keeping our microbiome healthy.
What do microbes do for our mood and our brains?
Now, we know that the microbes help digestion, immune system functioning and the production of vitamins, among other things. But did you know that the same microbes play a role in our emotions and brain development?
Microbes make two important compounds, ARA and DHA, both of which tell brain cells to divide. Hence, these compounds are crucial for babies and young children as their brains are still growing and developing. ARA and DHA have been shown to pay an important role in learning and memory.
Furthermore, gut bacteria send signals to the brain as they make neuro-transmitters such as melatonin (regulates sleep and inflammation), acetylcholine (regulates endocrine and REM sleep function), GABA (regulates anxiety) and serotonin (regulates, mood, social behavior, appetite, sex drive, sleep and memory), to name but a few. In other words, the state of the gut microbiome can determine to a large degree whether you are going to be feel happy or depressed.
How to build a healthy microbiome
- Eat plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber as well as probiotic foods.
- Avoid sugar, alcohol and dead (i.e. processed) food.
- Avoid antibiotics – they don't kill viruses, they kill all the good microbes, and they make pathological bacteria more resistant.