Superorganism: Microbiome Brain, Performance, and Health Effects

By on September 9, 2019

You are a superorganism. While that sounds incredibly awesome and science-fiction, what it actually means is possibly even cooler: you are a single organism that is made up of billions of other organisms. And of course, those organisms are bacteria – your microbiome. These are not all bad – in fact a huge number of the 500-1,000 species found in the human body are incredibly important for our health, performance, and even brain function. The microbiome brain and performance impacts are significant and that’s what we’re going to be looking at here.

Microbiome brain and body

It is a well-known fact at this point that the human body contains more bacterial cells than human cells, and the same goes for DNA. You contain roughly 100 trillion bacteria. Which is a lot. You are more bacteria than human! This is what we are referring to when we discuss the microbiome or microbiota (which has a slightly narrower definition).

Our own cells are partly made up from ancient bacteria… descended from ancient alphaprotobacteria more than 3.5 billion years ago

And those bacteria aren’t just free loaders – they play crucial symbiotic roles in the body, which are so important as to be a crucial part of who we are. In fact, our own cells are partly made up from ancient bacteria in a sense. Our mitochondria – the energy factories of our bodies – are actually evolved from ancient alphaproteobacteria  more than 3.5 billion years ago. This explains why our mitochondria contain an entirely different set of DNA. And why the microbiome brain and body effects are so notable.

Super Functional Training

Microbiome Diet for Weight Loss and Muscle Mass

What’s most exciting from a performance point of view, is that the microbioata of the gut specifically has a huge impact on your mood, your metabolism, your cardiovascular performance, your intelligence and more. This has led to the gut sometimes being referred to as the “second brain.”

microbiome muscle body composition

The potential impact of the microbiome on weight loss is also particularly potent. In one case study, a woman received a faecal transplant (a transplant of faecal matter from one person to another) from her overweight relative to treat a serious health condition. While the transplant was a success and the illness was halted in its tracks, she soon began to notice that her body was different. The now-healthy recipient of the foreign faeces and thus foreign bacteria, began to gain weight! And nothing she could do could help her to control it.

More exciting still, is that bacteria could directly influence muscle mass formation. In one study, researchers transplanted the gut bacteria from wild mice into mice that had been raised to entirely lack a gut microbiota, which led to a marked increase in muscle mass and a reduction in muscular atrophy! (Study)

Because of the symbiotic relationship thing… You get it.

In fact, a person’s microbiome (which is far more unique from one person to another than DNA) can potentially be used as one of the best indicators of body composition.

If you’re struggling to lose weight, build muscle, or focus, it might be because your microbiome is negatively affecting your metabolism.

Bacteria could directly influence muscle mass formation

Meanwhile, a whole field of psychobiotics is concerned with exploring the use of beneficial bacteria in improving mood and focus (study). Essentially, this is the use of probiotics as nootropics.The microbiome brain relationship is one that is highly complex.

Recommended Resource: Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser

Microbiome Brain and Body Effects Explained

Bacteria are able to affect many processes in the body in fact. They do this through a number of processes:

  • They produce digestive enzymes to help break down foods and aid digestion
  • They produce neurotransmitters affecting the network of neurons lining the gut. The gut is so high in neurons in fact, that it is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.”
  • They boost the immune system by “fighting” bad bacteria in your gut.
  • Your microbiome is even able to “talk” to your mitochondria via cellular signalling, owing to that common ancestry. This can improve energy production as bacteria produce short chain fatty acids (SFCAs) called butyrate that can be burned by the mitochondria to create ATP – providing more energy. Butyrate also affects gene expression in muscle and brown fat and encourages fatty acid oxidation via AMPK.
    • SCFA propionate is likewise a substance that helps to increase the integrity of the gut wall, helps to modulate the production of nitric oxide, and down-regulates pro-inflammatory TNF-alpha in colon cells.
Microbiome brain

It is believed by many that gut bacteria might hold the solution to health issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Even depression and brain fog could be somewhat alleviated by controlling the gut microbiome. This is another potential application of understanding the microbiome brain relationship.

What Does a Healthy Gut Look Like? A Microbiome Diet

While this is all very interesting, it’s not terribly actionable. What can we do to improve our gut microbiome and thus our body composition, brain function, and athletic performance?

Recommended Resource: Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance That is Revolutionizing Sports by Dr. Marc Bubbs

In the book Peak, author Dr. Marc Bubbs collects a large amount of relevant data on this point, as well as useful tips and advice. He reports on work conducted by Nic West from Griffith University, looking at the microbiomes of the world’s top performers.

Microbiome energy

He discovered that there are actually several bacteria strains that are particularly common in the guts of elite athletes.

These are:

  • Bifidobacterium longum – A bacterium found in the GI tracts and are also observed to be particularly high in breast-fed infants. It is particularly prevalent in dairy, and those with lactose intolerance may benefit from supplementation.
  • Bacteroides – This is a genus of anaerobic and bile-resistant bactera observed in high quantities in correlation with high fat and high protein diets. Interestingly, bacteroides are passed from mother to child during vaginal birth – the child actually ingests them while passing through! Hence some hospitals have adopted the practice of transferring bacteria using a swab when children are delivered via C-section.
  • Akkermansia – This is found in high levels in both elite and recreational athletes. It is supported by foods rich in a fiber called oligofructose, which is found in garlic, onions, and bananas.
  • F. fermentum – Known to have antimicrobial effects against gut pathogens.
  • Prevotella – A species known to aid the breakdown of carbohydrates.
  • F. prausnitzii – A species of the firmicutes phylum (meaning category don’t you know). This stays located close to the gut lining, where it is able to aid with the interface between the body and the rest of the gut microbiota – think of it like the translator.

Other beneficial microbes include:

  • Bacillus – A strain of anaerobic bacteria that is known to digest foods, extracting energy from indigestible fibers and resistant starches and producing SCFAs. You can get this one from consuming resistant starches, as well as fermented foods like sauerkraut.
  •  Prevotella – A bacteria that seems to correlate with the amount of intense anaerobic training a person does.

The following microbiome brain strains have been implicated for potential psychobiotic benefit:

  • Lactobacillus brevis – Found in pickles and sauerkraut, this not only appears to boost immune function but also raise levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor for potentially enhanced plasticity.
  • Bifidobacterium longum – Improves longevity through antioxidant properties but also helps to increase BDNF.
  • Lactobacillus plantarum – Reduces gut permeability, which has been linked to a number of brain disorders.

For weight loss in particular, studies demonstrate the beneficial effects of L. rhamnosus, L. gasseri, and Bifidobacterium lactis (study).

Microbiome diet health brain

Studies looking at the guts of the Hadza hunter gatherer tribe in Tanzania – thought to be very similar to that of pre-civilized man – have found high quantities of the firmicutes phylum, particularly: roseburia, blautia, and f. prausnitzi. These are known for their fiber-degrading properties, as is the bacteria prevotella that’s also found in Hadza guts. This is due to the high fiber content of the tribe’s diet.

This not only appears to boost immune function but also raise levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor

From this, we can begin to paint a picture of what a healthy diet might look like with regards to supporting gut health. It would be high fibre, and also contain fermented foods, dairy, and starch. Athletes with healthy microbiomes ate large quantities of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and steered more toward whole grain breads.

Another obvious option is to try and use probiotic products to enhance your gut health. These are yogurts, tablets, and drinks that contain large amounts of bacterial cultures. Do these work? The good news is that some studies do seem to show an effect. These are currently quite limited in scope and number right now however and most conclude that it’s too early to draw concrete conclusions (study). More studies looking at the effect on the microbiome brain relationship or energy would also be useful.

Psychobiotics gut bacteria

When choosing a probiotic, you should focus on the CFU count. CFU stands for “colony forming unit,” which tells you how many live and active microorganisms are found in a serving. Most products range between 5-30 billion CFU and generally more is better, though you also need to read which strains are actually in the product and whether these have been shown to do anything useful.

Also potentially effective are prebiotics, which include the likes of brewer’s yeast. This substance (taken as a supplement by none other than Bruce Lee) contains microflora that help to support the environment of the gut for healthy microbes (study).

You also need to read which strains are actually in the product

Try to avoid simple sugars, acellular carbs, and highly processed foods, which provide a ready food source for the bad, inflammation-promoting bacteria (study).

The Correct Strategy for Fixing Your Microbiome Brain and Body Relationships

But Dr. Marc Bubbs, author of the excellent book Peak, warns against falling into the trap of a reductionist approach. You cannot control your bacteria precisely enough to try and raise specific quantities of microbes. And each of us has such a unique microbiome profile, that the same approach is not going to work for everyone. This is a trap that is likewise easy to fall into with micronutrient supplementation. Better is to aim to be generally healthy, and to listen to your own body. The goal of hacking the microbiome brain might be premature.

Natural microbiome gut health

Indeed, by far the most important property of a healthy gut biome it seems is diversity. The greater the range of bacteria, the more balanced it will be. Try to think of this like maintaining an organic garden. The best way to get rid of aphids is not to spray them with a chemical insecticide but rather to attract ladybirds to your garden and build a stronger ecosystem. The same is true of your gut and by having a broad range of bacteria in there, you will be healthier.

By far the most important property of a healthy gut biome it seems is diversity.

Likewise, expose yourself to a range of bacteria by not going overboard with the bleach around the house. Spend time outside and don’t be afraid to eat your vegetables with a little dirt on them. Dirt is actually a great source of healthy bacteria!

Microbiome outdoors dirt

It’s a curious thought that it actually isn’t in the best interests of any bacteria to kill its host… Some have suggested this is proof that those strains of bacteria are in the early stages of evolution, or that their negative effects are more the result of imbalances. Either way, it seems no bacteria is truly “evil.”

The greater the range and diversity of natural foods you eat, the more diverse and stronger your gut will be. And this is where our modern lifestyles can actually be beneficial: head to your local supermarket and stock up on natural, whole food, that has been imported from as many different countries as possible! You could also try following the “50 foods challenge,” which involves trying to consume 50 different foods in 7 days each week. This is one of the optimal ways to begin seeing the microbiome brain and body benefits.

The greater the range and diversity of natural foods you eat, the more diverse and stronger your gut will be.

Dr. Bubbs recommends that if you suffer from low energy, bloating, poor mood, or uncontrolled weight gain, that you try first try using a restrictive diet in order in cut back the bacteria that is already there. That actually means reducing fibre intake and eating only very simple and bland foods for a while, while also seeking out antimicrobial foods and supplements such as garlic. This helps to trim back the overgrowth, allowing you to effectively start again. Consuming too much fibre when your gut is imbalanced will actually worsen your situation otherwise, as you won’t have the microbiome to support breaking it down, and there won’t be room for the new bacteria to take hold.

Once your symptoms have settled down, you can then begin to build your gut flora back up by introducing those more varied and complex ingredients.

Other Factors Affecting Gut Health

Good sleep is also key to healthy gut health. Perhaps surprisingly, your microbiome actually has a sleep-wake cycle just like you, and sleeps best when you are asleep. If you don’t sleep, you can cause damage to your friendly micro-allies.

The gut-brain axis is an important area of study looking at the interaction between gut health and stress.

Just as the microbiome is able to aid the performance of your mitochondria, it also transpires that the reverse is true: optimally functioning mitochondria also help support a healthy microbiome! Thus, fitness training, and especially HIIT could help to boost your microbiome. Overtraining however can be extremely bad for your gut health – as can any form of stress. The gut-brain axis is an important area of study looking at the interaction between gut health and stress. Our microbiota communicate with our brains via the vagus nerve, as well as the immune system, tryptophan metabolism, SCFAs, gut hormone signalling, and more pathways. This interaction is two-way and if you experience a lot of chronic stress, it can take a serious toll on your gut (study).

Only use antibiotics as a last resort, as they take a “scorched Earth” approach to the fight against bad bacteria and can completely eliminate your healthy gut flora. It may take over a year for this to grow back. If you do need antibiotics, then make sure to spend time rebuilding and monitoring your gut health.

That’s how you support the microbiome brain and body relationship to improve your health, energy, and wellness. Let me know in the comments if this is something you already do, or if you plan to reconsider your diet in light of this information.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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