Cura Personalis: Gut feelings

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The average human has 100 trillion bacteria living in their intestinal tract — that’s over three pounds of bacteria alone. This “microbiome” colonizes our gut at birth, and recent findings have discovered that the types of bacteria that reside within us can help determine everything from our metabolism to our mood.

Karen Konkoly

Karen Konkoly

I never thought much about the bacteria in my stomach until Thanksgiving break when a family friend, Susan, showed me her latest project: homemade kombucha. Kombucha is a drink made from fermented tea and tastes like a fizzy cross between iced tea and beer.

The fermentation process yields a drink that is ultra-low in sugar and calories but provides an impressive array of nutrients, antioxidants and probiotics. I was experimenting with a vegan diet at the time, and the allure of such a brilliant dairy-free source of probiotics motivated me to start culturing my own kombucha.

Since kombucha takes about a week to ferment, my first batch was ready just as finals were getting started. Instead of my usual coffee, I arrived at FML each morning with a big tumbler of homemade kombucha in hand. Sipping kombucha in the library made me feel immune to the stress of finals that surrounded me. I ended up having a grand time during finals last semester. For some reason, drinking kombucha made me happy.

Like many people, I suspect, I was always vaguely aware of the importance of probiotics for digestive health. Until I discovered kombucha, though, I didn’t realize the immediate benefits of a healthy gut biome for my everyday demeanor. One study by Benton, Williams and Brown found that healthy subjects who were initially in a bad mood had an improved mood if they ate a probiotic-containing yogurt.

Being in a good mood, obviously, makes life more pleasant for you and those you interact with. However, happiness also leads to better outcomes in general. A 2005 meta-analysis of numerous studies found happiness may be the cause of success across multiple life domains — including marriage, income and health.

Thus, a recent goal of mine has been to create my own happiness — the sustainable kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on external factors like achievements or relationships. Little did I know that gut bacteria also produce neuroactive molecules — like serotonin and melatonin — that could influence my sense of vitality via mechanisms I previously had not even considered.

Regularly consuming your favorite fermented foods — whether yogurt, sauerkraut, miso or kombucha — can help promote a healthy gut microbiome that will leave you feeling stellar. However, in order to achieve optimal gut health one must not only eat probiotics, but also be aware of what habits have an adverse affect on your gut microbiome.

After a bit more research, I realized that while eating probiotics could improve the health of my gut bacteria, a number of my daily habits were working against me. Although I try to eat a healthy diet of mostly whole, plant-based foods, I regularly consumed artificial sweeteners like Splenda, diet beverages and sugar-free gum.

According to Scientific American, preliminary studies suggest that artificial sweeteners can change the ratio of certain types of bacteria in our stomachs that promote nutrients being stored as fat rather than broken down for energy. Though the study mostly focused on the implications of this for weight gain and obesity, nutrients that become fat instead of energy mean that we have less energy for life.

Since finding this out, I have cut back on eating artificial sweeteners. To my surprise, I found that I no longer need the caffeine boost in the morning that I used to rely heavily on.

Another habit of mine that was wreaking havoc on my microbiome was consistently taking antibiotics to keep a clearer complexion. Thinking back, I should have realized that antibiotics were probably killing all my probiotics, but it never crossed my mind. While antibiotics can be an effective short-term solution for skin problems, a study by Nole, Yim and Keri suggested that regularly eating probiotics might help the skin as well by reducing the inflammation that leads to blemishes.

Of course, antibiotics can be necessary to treat more dire health circumstances. Now, when I take antibiotics I try to eat even more probiotics to maintain microbiome balance.

The individual looking to create a diet that promotes the best mood, physical health and success should take into consideration the three pounds of bacteria living in their gut. By not only eating plenty of probiotics, like kombucha, but also becoming informed and minimizing our consumption of foods harmful to healthy gut bacteria, like artificial sweeteners, we can feel better and do better every day. Go with your gut.

Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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