In a word, yes.
Welcome to your gut microbiome, a diverse community of bacteria we harbour in our gut. Not to be underestimated, the number of our gut bacteria outnumber by 100 fold, the total number of cells that make up our bodies.
Unlike mistletoe, a parasitic plant that lives on a tree simply drawing which nutrients it needs for its own survival, our gut microbiome is manipulative, directing our mood and food choices to suit its own needs. Crafty eh!
How this happens is still being investigated, but researchers believe it occurs by the bacteria releasing signalling molecules that influence our immune, endocrine and nervous system.
So if you’ve always had a sweet tooth, perhaps it’s because your bacterial system is dictating which nutrients it wants you to eat!
Researcher Athena Atkipis from UCSF states
“different gut bacteria vie with each other for food and manipulate our behaviour and mood by altering the neural signals in the vagus nerve (which connects the gut and brain), changing taste receptors, producing toxins to make us feel bad or releasing chemical rewards to make us feel good.”
But before you start wondering where this will all end, the good news is that this we can influence our gut microflora by our choice of what we eat and because the ecosystem is so fluid, it can be influenced in a matter of minutes.
The implication of this is that we can look for ways to improve our health through our food choices.
The relationship between our internal gut bacteria and human health has been steadily growing. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren took out the Nobel Prize for their work that revealed how stomach ulcers, previously thought to be the result of stress, arise as result of Helicobacter infection in the stomach.
Antibiotics have long been known to alter our gut flora and probiotics are now frequently recommended to help restore our gut flora to normal.
Beyond that researchers are also investigating how changing a person’s microflora can help in the management of certain disease processes (such as inflammatory bowel disease) using techniques that include prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics (to kill off unwanted or pathogenic gut bacteria), faecal transplants (yes, you read that right) and dietary changes.
The unfolding of this new understanding of how our gut microbiome relates to human health, function and wellbeing promises to reveal new and potentially life changing treatments for a number of different health conditions.
Next time you are faced with the perennial question “What do I want to eat?” maybe check in to wonder who is actually doing the asking.
Joe Alcock, Carlo C. Maley, C. Athena Aktipis. Is eating behaviour manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. BioEssays, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/bies.201400071