You know that that giant muffin is a naked cupcake, but it's not enough to block out the little nagging voice (or maybe booming roar) of a craving. So, even though it has no nutritional value or you're trying to lose weight by cutting out junk food calories, you find yourself chowing down. But new research published in BioEssays suggests that your gut bacteria, not your willpower, may be to blame.
"Bacteria within the gut are manipulative," said Carlo Maley, PhD, director of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco. "There is a diversity of interests represented in the microbiome, some aligned with our own dietary goals, and others not."
In a scientific review, the researchers found that the bacteria living in your gut (which outnumbers your own cells 100 to 1!) influence what you eat to get the nutrients that they want, even if it's not the healthiest choice for you. "Microbes have the capacity to manipulate behavior and mood through altering the neural signals in the vagus nerve, changing taste receptors, producing toxins to make us feel bad, and releasing chemical rewards to make us feel good," explains Athena Aktipis, PhD, director of human and social evolution at University of California, San Francisco's Center for Evolution and Cancer.
But don't worry—you have the power to manipulate your own gut bacteria. "Because microbiota are easily manipulatable by prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics, fecal transplants, and dietary changes, altering our microbiota offers a tractable approach to otherwise intractable problems of obesity and unhealthy eating," report the researchers. (Get a healthier gut with these four gut-healing recipes.)
"You can view bacterial flora that inhabit the intestinal tract like a garden," says Dr. Davis. "If you fertilize it properly, provide sufficient water and nutrients, and avoid herbicides and pesticides that disrupt the natural balance, your garden will yield a bounty of vigorous, healthy crops." Unfortunately, he says, dietary grains seem to be the equivalent of Roundup to your healthy gastrointestinal flora. (Check out these other nine weird things killing your gut.)
In fact, cravings may just be the tip of the ice burg when it comes to the influence of your gut bacteria. "A number of health conditions have been associated with changes of bowel flora," he says, listing multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, gallstones, acid reflux, ulcerative colitis, and food allergies. "Funny thing: Each and every one of these conditions has also been associated with grain consumption, especially consumption of wheat, rye, and barley." (Check out these seven other surprising reasons to give up wheat.)
He says that giving up grains is the best way to get your gut back on track. "Years of grain consumption disrupt the composition of bowel flora in your intestinal tract," says Dr. Davis. "Remove the disruptive effect of grains, and your bowel flora begin to shift back to a more healthy profile."
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