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A Hijacked Brain and a Tongue Held Hostage

The micro-thugs that own us

As I finished a liverwurst, salami, and Muenster cheese sandwich with mayo, I thought, “I am insane.” Why don’t I just inject Spackle into my arteries? I am overweight and have cardiac issues. Not to mention, I have been pressing 60 so long, it’s pleated. My risk factors are higher than Janis Joplin was at Woodstock. The only excusable reason for eating this sandwich was being forced to at gunpoint by a twisted terrorist. So obviously, there are a few sesame seeds missing from my bun. However, long before this epiphany hit, the salami had hit my hips, and my Spanx were screaming, “Please donate me to Goodwill! I can’t take this anymore.” Suddenly, I realized I was not crazy—I just needed to get rid of those talking Spanx. After all, I wasn’t crouching on the roof of a tall building with a high-powered rifle staring into a mood ring singing “Kumbaya." I had just succumbed to my craving for foods I should not eat. Two and half billion obese people1 do this around the world. Surely, not every one of us is an unstable Mabel.

Micro-Thug Life: It’s a Jungle

Only one-tenth of the trillions of cells in our bodies are human cells, Nine-tenths are bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms.2 Since we host these little guys, their nutrient supply is dependent on what we eat.3 Thus, survival pressures force them to influence our eating behaviors to serve their nutritional needs, which are not always concordant with our best interests.4 Therefore, in essence, gut organisms are really just microscopic thugs that hijack our bodies and behaviors for personal gain, by 1) creating cravings in us for foods that serve their nutritional needs, not ours,5 or by 2) manipulating our moods so we turn to comfort foods that serve their purposes, not ours.6-8 Humans may host these micro-gangsters, but if gut bacteria controls our food cravings and moods, to serve their agenda - who really holds the deed to this house we call self?

Enteric Turf Wars

If the gut bacteria are not trying to get the food they want by manipulating our cravings or moods, they are trying to get us to eat foods that destroy other gut bacteria to expand their presence.9 Killing for turf, how gangster is that? As long as they get theirs and pick up turf, what do they care if we look like beanbag chairs with lips; after all, they are thugs. Think of it like this: the Bloods, Wah-Chings, Grape Street Crips, Aryan Brotherhood, Enron executives, Junk Bond traders and Al Qaeda, serving life sentences in an overpopulated subterranean artic prison that has bribable guards who drink. Can you imagine how ugly that situation would become?

The world’s 2.4 billion obese and their gut gangsters are already there. Like the large gangs, such as the MS 13, or the Crips,10 the larger groups of gut bacteria have more resources to allocate to various processes.11-14 Hence, they have a greater ability to influence ingestive behaviors and moods. The fewer varieties of gut bacteria we have, the greater chance we have for sub optimal ingestive behavior. 8,14For example, Prevotella15 flourishes on carbohydrates, whereas some gut bacteria specifically require sugar and chocolate. Bacteroidetes 11 like fats, so my Bacteroidetes loved that saturated fat fest I had for lunch. Just look around you, and find someone in a fudge coma and you can bet their micro-thug bacteria is waiting for those nutrients like a ruthless pimp waiting on "his" money.

The Gut Thugs' Gats

Food craving is one of the main weapons that gut thugs use to compete for nutrients. For example, studies have found different metabolites in the urine of people who crave chocolate compared to those who do not crave chocolate.16,17 Gut microbes alter taste receptors,18 like gang graffiti inadvertently alters a neighborhood’s perception of itself and subsequently its culture. Taste buds exist to detect toxins and identify nutrient value. Hence, altering taste buds results in changed eating behaviors, cravings, and conceivably reward values of food because dopamine is involved in the rewarding aspects of taste, which evolution uses to ensure we seek proper nutrients. 19-21

Like a dissatisfied thug becomes toxic, when our gut gangsters don’t get their nutrients they release toxins that affect our moods,6-8 because negative moods result in increased eating. Where there is mood, there is dopamine and serotonin.22 Dopamine is the brain’s happy dance drug, and serotonin is the brain’s “don’t dance too long” drug. 21-23

"The hypothesis that microorganism in our intestine have somehow managed to hack into our reward system, enabling them to make us crave for foods that are good for them is intriguing,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, Director of the Oppenheimer Family Center for the Neurobiology of Stress in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Mayer, who was one of the early pioneers of brain-gut communication, is one of an elite group of authorities on this matter. Mayer also says, “If this concept turns out to be correct, one could speculate that as a by-product of this food-seeking strategy, alterations in mood may be a consequence, as dopamine plays a role in depression as well."

Mayer’s Ingestive Behaviors and Obesity Program continually conduct compelling research. For example, Dr. Claudia Sanmiguel is investigating an association between successful weight-loss maintenance after bariatric surgery and changes in gut bacteria and functional brain activity. Her colleague, Dr. Arpana Gupta, says, “Sex and racial differences in gut bacteria are not well defined in the U.S. but increasingly data suggests they may communicate with the Central Nervous System via neural, endocrine and immune pathways that possibly influence brain function and behavior, in a sex and race-specific manner.” Naturally, she’s on that like traffic on an LA Freeway.

At the end of the day, it is scary to think that our cravings, moods, and even our brain’s reward system is being hijacked by little turf-warring gut micro-thugs for their own needs. On another note, it is extremely exciting, because animal studies have shown that these little thugs are very vulnerable to pre-biotics, pro-biotics, and fecal transplants. For me, and many like me, that translates into time. Better times, and more time, with my family, friends, and Godchildren. Remain Fabulous and phenomenal.

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All photos purchased from Shutterstock by UCLA CNS Permission to use an alter granted to Dr. Gordon

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