How Could Something So Little Be So Big?
by Sussanna Czeranko, ND
The body’s myriad moving parts are harmoniously synchronized without missing a beat. Three particularly important elements significantly influencing that coherence and widely studied in recent medical research, are the mitochondria, microbiome, and vagal nerve. They have in common a miraculous minuteness.
Mitochondria are specialized tiny power plants whose primary function is to produce life-giving Adenosine 5’-triphosphate (ATP), the energy to drive cellular biochemical reactions and regulate each cell’s life cycle. There are approximately 10 million billion mitochondria, comprising about 10 percent of the body weight, despite their infinitesimal size. Having ample ATP ensures the maintenance of the conditions of health that improve the quality of life, slow down the aging process, and prevent inflammatory conditions and diseases.
While the mitochondria provide the needed energy for life, a healthy community of microbes in the digestive tract is an essential component of immunity, modifying disease and influencing the metabolism of its host. The human microbiota, or microbiome, refers to symbiotic bacteria, viruses consisting of 10 to 100 trillion cells that inhabit primarily the human gut. Researchers have identified 22,000 genes in the entire human genome and report an overall gene catalog of 3.3 million genes in the human gut microbiome. The microbiome is critical to providing immunity. In fact, 70 percent of the body’s first line of defense resides in the gut.
The number of human cells in the body and the number of symbiotic bacteria found in the gut flora are almost equal. Weighing about 3 pounds, the microbiome has the same number of cells as the whole human body. These fungi, bacteria, and viruses primarily inhabit the human gut. They are essential for synthesis of neurotransmitters, vitamins, and short-chain fatty acids that directly influence the pathways of communication between the brain and gut.
Studies demonstrate that altering the numbers and types of microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract has clinically significant effects on metabolic inflammation, obesity prevalence, increased intestinal permeability, anxiety levels, mood, and food cravings. The correct balance of the right kinds of organisms in the biome makes all the difference between health and disease.
The microbiome is the primary signalling component between the brain and the gut. The brain–gut axis is a bi-directional communication system consisting of nerves, the immune system, hormones, and cellular signalling agents such as neurotransmitters. This brain–gut relationship can be better understood by exploring the role that the microbiome has on mood and anxiety. When we hear of mood, or stress-induced anxiety, we automatically think that hormones affecting the mood are housed within the brain. The hormone serotonin, for example, is widely associated with mood and sleep and, rather than being produced in the brain, it originates in the gut (95% gut, 5% brain).
Serotonin has many other functions besides elevating mood, including stimulating peristalsis, secretion, bowel function, and regulating appetite. It acts as a signalling molecule between the brain and the gut and is influenced by the diversity and stability of the microbiome.
Another means of improving mood and sense of well-being involves the vagal nerve, often called the “wandering nerve.” It is the body’s longest cranial nerve and offers two-way communication between organs and the brain. Its functions extend beyond mood to include extensive duties such as synchronizing the heart beat to breathing, gag reflex, swallowing, coughing, speech, suppression of inflammation, lowering blood pressure, taste, sweating, and regulation of the digestive processes. Ninety percent of the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract connect to the brain via the vagal nerve, whose importance in handling stress is substantial. It is the principle nerve that helps counter the effects of stress, establishes a state of rest, and promotes digestion.
Chronic stress (cited by the World Health Organization as a major 21st-century health concern) impacts the microbiome, the mitochondria, and the vagal nerve. This disruption essentially leads to very similar disease presentations in all parts of the body: auto immunity, digestive complaints, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, diabetes, obesity, and chronic inflammation.
We can support our microbiome, mitochondria, and the vagal nerve with simple dietary interventions. In the next issue, we will explore ways to influence our health in easy, manageable steps, by looking more closely at how diet influences the composition and diversity of the biome, adds nutritional support for the vagal nerve, and provides essential nutrients for the mitochondria.
When we consider the work of these three tiny but hugely important body systems—mitochondria, microbiome, and vagal nerve—their relative size compared to organs such as the stomach or lungs is small by comparison, yet they are incomparably huge contributors to sustaining life.
Sussanna Czeranko, a licensed ND in Saskatchewan has been practicing since 1994. She is a frequent presenter and workshop leader and an author. Sussanna is the founder of The Breathing Academy, a training institute for naturopaths to incorporate a scientific model of breathing therapy called Buteyko into their practice. She currently lives and practices at her new medical spa located in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan, Canada. Also, see the display ad on page 11 of the 29.1 May/June issue of the WHOLifE Journal for contact information and upcoming events at Manitou Waters Clinic.