Caring For Our Gastrointestinal Guests

The Body’s Rhythms

Our body wouldn’t function without being guided by many automatic rhythms. Think about it: heart rhythms, breathing rhythms, swallowing and blinking rhythms, nerve firing rhythms, circulating hormone release rhythms. These life-sustaining rhythms occur all day, every day in an automatic, unconscious way. Most of these rhythms also fluctuate within a life-supporting range – faster heart and breathing rates as our activity levels increase, for example.

The rhythm of the digestive tract is known as peristalsis. Nerves cause pacemaker cells that line the gut’s walls to fire in a wave-like sequence that gently moves the gut’s contents along this 25-foot-long tube. Along the way, we extract essential nutrients and excrete what we don’t need. What current research is highlighting is that as that peristaltic wave nudges gut contents along, these foodstuffs are also feeding our gut’s microbiomic residents.

Our Gut Rhythm’s Pacemaker

A 2017 study conducted in Kiel, Germany, took our understanding of the role of bacteria in peristaltic movement a step further. These researcher’s findings suggest that our body’s nervous system’s role in regulating the pace of peristalsis is less than we thought. Our bacteria act on the pacemaker cells situated in the gut’s walls by secreting molecules in a way that causes our pacemaker cells to accelerate (diarrhea), slow (constipation) or otherwise fire chaotically, disrupting the ability of the peristaltic wave action to occur smoothly. Disruption of the rate at which peristalsis occur is commonly seen in a variety of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease.

Chasing Magic Bullets

Their study examined a tiny creature called the Hydra. Their research found that it required restoration of the whole community of bacteria that normally live in the Hydra for its peristaltic movement to become normal again. In other words, even in such a simple creature, trying to find a single “magic bullet” to cure the problem – as so many of us do when seeking relief from digestive symptoms – didn’t work. Even the Hydra “knew” that a holistic and comprehensive approach was necessary.

Implications for Us

While it is inappropriate to base ideas about IBS treatment on a single study, especially a study focused on a creature like the Hydra and expect the findings to directly translate to human experience, there are several lessons we can take away.

  1. Bacteria clearly play a role in regulating vital functions in our body. Paying attention to cultivating a healthy mix of bacteria is an important step in enabling these bacteria to help regulate us in healthy ways. This includes helping to regulate the gut’s activities that show up as familiar IBS symptoms – diarrhea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, and gassiness.
  2. There is no single way to restore the gut’s microbiome. Just as introducing a single gas station, a single restaurant, or a single clothing store won’t restore a long-suffering community to vibrant health, there is no single supplement or pill or meditation session that will suddenly cure IBS. The path to vigorous gut and general health requires a slow and steady approach, where patience and persistence are essential elements.
  3. Restoring a healthy microbiome does involve several key elements. They include:
    • Reliance on whole foods, with a significant emphasis on vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats. (Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? by Mark Hyman)
    • If food sensitivities (e.g., to gluten) are a significant issue, following a diet low of foods containing short-chain sugars (FODMAPS) is helpful.
    • Minimizing consumption of highly processed foods and sugars (e.g., high fructose corn syrup-containing foods) is important, as these substances powerfully promote body-wide inflammation.
    • Introduction of high quality pre- and pro-biotics into your diet.

Our bacteria were here in the world eons before we arrived. They’ve learned a thing or two about how to survive and thrive in this world. I encourage you to learn from their experience by putting them to work on your behalf. That is a biological win-win if ever there was one!

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Andrea P. Murillo-Rincon, Alexander Klimovich, Eileen Pemöller, Jan Taubenheim, Benedikt Mortzfeld, René Augustin, Thomas C. G. Bosch. Spontaneous body contractions are modulated by the microbiome of Hydra. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-16191-x