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Can Gut Bacteria Manipulate Eating Behavior?

Researchers believe that microbes may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut…. 

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Gut microbes play an important role in protecting our digestive tract as well as in food digestion. They outnumber our own cells by 100 fold, and present in diverse communities. Each community of microbes requires specific nutrients to grow and survive. Therefore, they tend to compete with each other for habitat and nutrients.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco, University of New Mexico, and Arizona State University believe that the diverse community of microbes may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut.

Based on their review of recent scientific literature, researchers found that gut microbes could manipulate our eating behaviors through several mechanisms, including:

  • Releasing toxins in the absence of nutrients and manipulating host behaviors through pain signaling.
  • Altering host’s taste receptors and influencing food preferences.
  • Producing neurochemicals, which interfere with vagus nerve activity.
  • Producing analogs of mammalian hormones which involved in mood and behavior.
  • Direct manipulation of intestinal cells.

According to the researchers, "Evolutionary conflict between host and microbiota may lead to craving and cognitive conflict with regard to food choice," and "one way to change eating behavior is by intervening in our microbiota." For instance, we can alter our microbiota by changing our diet, ingesting specific bacterial species in the form of probiotics, killing target species with antibiotics, or utilizing fecal transplants.

"Optimizing the balance of power among bacterial species in our gut might allow us to lead less obese and healthier lives," expressed the authors.

Practice Pearls:

  • Review of the recent scientific literature suggested that gut bacteria might influence our craving and mood through difference mechanisms.
  • The best approach to manage gut microbiota is still unknown.
  • Researchers suggested that intervention on increasing gut microbial diversity could be an effective way to change out eating behavior.

Alcock J, Maley C and Aktipis C. Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. Bioessays. 2014; 36: 940–949.