Your Gut and Hunger: The Surprising Role of Bacteria

brain and gut

Do Probiotics Improve Hunger?

One of the most promising scientific frontiers in nutrition has been our increasing understanding of the gut. It turns out it does a lot more than churn through our food. Instead, it looks more and more like the gut is a delicate and complex intra-cellular highway where our body and residing bacteria mediate different signaling pathways that have profound effects on our bodies.

This is particularly true with regards to hunger. A lot of the hunger we feel is independent of the amount of food we have in our stomach.  Hunger is a function of the mind as much as the tummy. And our brain receives a lot of its satiety signals from the gut before and after a meal.

Ghrelin: Hunger’s Silencing Hormone

Before a meal your stomach tends to release a hormone called ghrelin which is hunger inducing, and after a meal a whole slew of peptides can be released which tell your appetite: stop!!

There’s a lot of causal factors for how these signals get turned on and off, but at least one of them is becoming increasingly clear: bacteria.

Prebiotics: Telling Your Body “Don’t Eat!”

It seems that “nice” bacteria (prebiotics) have a tendency to cause our guts to produce more of the appetite-suppressing stuff. For example, in 2009 a double blind placebo study was done that measured the effect of prebiotics on people’s feelings of satiety (fullness) and hormone regulation. Here’s what they found:

Prebiotic supplementation was associated with an increase in plasma gut peptide concentrations (glucagon-like peptide 1 and peptide YY), which may contribute in part to changes in appetite sensation and glucose excursion responses after a meal in healthy subjects

There’s some jargon in there, but the take home point is this: a decent amount of prebiotics seems to cause our bodies to put our hunger-suppressing activities into a higher gear.

This sort of news is encouraging because the body’s sensitivity to these signals seems robust. That is, it responds to these signals no matter what. In a world where every other intervention aimed at preventing obesity ends in ugly failure, these sorts of findings illuminate a potential way to solve the problem.

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