What if you discovered there were parasites living inside you? And what if these creatures influenced your blood pressure, your digestion, even the basic functioning of your brain? And how would you feel if we told you they numbered in the trillions and that they were essential to your survival?
At this point you probably understand we’re talking about the bacteria in your body —not parasites really, since we get as much from them as they receive from us. Call them symbionts, a collection of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 trillion entities, the majority of which we need to help us survive.
You probably let that number flow through your mind without giving it much thought, but pause for one moment. Do you know that 100 trillion is approximately 14 thousand times the human population of the Earth?
Mankind has co-evolved with the bacteria in our bodies to the point at which we regard them as indistinguishable from ourselves. Most people don’t spend time pondering the fact that each one of those 100 trillion bacteria is an independent creature with its own DNA and its own optimal path to survival and reproduction. This is because most of the time we’re all pulling in the same direction. The food you eat is food for the creatures in your body. And in a sense, the food that they eat and then excrete, becomes nourishment for you.
But the complex mechanics of this symbiosis have yet to be fully explored by medical science, and new discoveries are happening every day.
For instance, researchers at Yale and Johns Hopkins University have recently observed a direct causal link between the bacteria in your intestines and your blood pressure.
And this discovery was completely unexpected.
It all began a few years ago when Jennifer Pluznick, assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins, found odor-sensing receptors in the human kidney.
This seemed odd, since as one would expect, odor receptors are traditionally found in the nose. These sorts of receptors, whether in the nose or elsewhere, are unique proteins that are found on the surface of cells. When affected by certain molecules they release a chemical signal that can serve as an on/off switch or a triggering mechanism.
On further investigation, Dr. Pluznick found these receptors (Olfr78) everywhere throughout the body, especially in the heart, diaphragm and along the walls of small blood vessels.
Hoping to decipher this puzzle, Pluznick began to search for molecules that might trigger these odd receptors.
There is still much to learn about this mechanism, but we now know some of the players and how they interact —Jennifer Pluznick
And surprisingly, she discovered that the trigger was vinegar. It turned out that simple acetic acid, as well as similar compounds that are produced in the large bowel as a byproduct of the digestion of soluble fiber, were enough to trigger Olfr78.
These compounds are not produced in large amounts by the body and are generally not present in the food we eat. They come into being when the bacteria in our bodies create them, after consuming the food that we have already eaten.
Eventually, the researchers discovered another receptor, Gpr41, that seems to work with Olfr78 to optimize blood pressure throughout the body, in direct response to the chemicals excreted by the bacteria in our intestines.
More generally, after we eat the sort of soluble fibre that ferments in our lower intestine (for example, legumes), our bacterial horde consume the result and then excrete chemicals that modulate our blood pressure. Why this might be the case, and exactly how it works is still a mystery that scientists are working hard to uncover.
This particular discovery opens up a number of avenues for regulating blood pressure through probiotics, antibiotics and diet. However, one thing that doctors can say right now is that gut microbes, and their preference and response to the foods we eat, plays an important role in the modulation, not only of your blood pressure, but of your general metabolism. They are working hard every day to help make you who you are, affecting your thoughts, sensations and emotions.
We are each of us, after all, only the CEO of a vast corporation of entities that compose our bodies, a population that is at least 14,000 times greater than the human population of the Earth.
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