By Loret Haas-Hanser
Holidays and celebrations are integral sociocultural aspects of society on a global scale. As cliche as it may sound, one of the most important traditions surrounding holidays is eating. Preparing food, cooking, and sitting down with family and friends is the backbone of celebration. With Thanksgiving and other food-centric holidays around the corner, it is important to think about how our bodies consume and digest food. Because eating is necessary for survival, we frequently don’t consider our daily eating routine in relation to biological functions. However, your body is doing more for you than you realize.
The human digestive system is extremely complex and relies on multiple mechanisms to maintain homeostasis. The gut metagenome is a collection of communities of microorganisms that work symbiotically to digest food and distribute its properties throughout the rest of the body. Gastrointestinal microbiota, also referred to as gut flora, carry trillions of bacteria with over two million known genes (which is over 100 times what’s known in humans). Similar to any other type of microorganism or bacteria, there are both good and bad kinds that can positively or negatively impact the body’s functionality. Every person has a unique set of gut flora, but all gastrointestinal microorganisms work in a similar manner. Main functions of gut flora include digesting food, producing vitamins (K and B), and most importantly, aiding in immune health by creating a barrier between the gastrointestinal tract and the rest of the body. As you can imagine, trillions of bacteria constantly working to keep your stomach working properly is an immensely intricate job, and sometimes there are malfunctions.
Microorganisms and dietary signals present throughout the gastrointestinal tract directly correlate to overall immune health and other digestive related issues. Recently, there has been a surge of studies researching the relationship between food sensitivities and the digestive mechanisms involving gut flora. Not shockingly, there is a direct link. Microorganisms in the digestive tract alongside predispositions present in the host have the potential to elicit food sensitivities such as allergies and intolerances. Findings from a study by Caminero et al. suggest that when not digested properly, enzymes present in the digestive tract can morph into bacterial substrates, which inversely impact the health of the gut and other systems in the body. Additionally, gut microorganisms can impact the development of food sensitivities.
Although much of the cause of developing a food sensitivity is unknown, studies show that flora present in the stomach play a vital role. Food sensitivities, such as the inability to digest gluten or lactose intolerance, can partially be attributed to lackluster digestive mechanisms. When food enters the system, it is processed by microorganisms. However, certain hosts can possess deficiencies in enzymes necessary for digesting certain foods, causing an intolerance. Specific catalysts increase the effectiveness of these enzymes are not conclusive, but, gut microbiota have proven to interact with necessary digestive enzymes.
Our bodies are complex multifactorial systems that should not be taken for granted. Trillions of microorganisms and cells work together to allow us to live our lives. Every second, every breath, and every bite of food requires work from our bodies. As cliche as that may sound, with holidays around the corner, specifically Thanksgiving, be sure to appreciate your body and what it does. We are in a world surrounded by constant terror and dread- but also, plenty of things to be thankful for. When you’re in the midst of holiday festivities, or just regular daily operations, take a minute to reflect and be appreciative for your body keeping you alive.
Caminero, A., Meisel, M., Jabri, B., & Verdu, E. F. (2018). Mechanisms by which gut microorganisms influence food sensitivities. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 1.
Zmora, N., Suez, J., & Elinav, E. (2018). You are what you eat: diet, health and the gut microbiota. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology