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With so many things competing for your attention, you probably don’t give much thought to the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa living in and on your body. Recent findings, however, suggest your microbes may warrant more respect.

All those microorganisms — collectively known as the microbiome — play a critical role in supporting your health. Yet despite the ecosystem’s significance, much of its operation remains a mystery.

Some very tiny proteins, however, may hold some big answers. Stanford University School of Medicine researchers Ami Bhatt, MD, PhD, and Hila Sberro, PhD, discovered that the microbiome produces tens of thousands of proteins — many so small that they’ve been overlooked in past studies. But their impact is important.

These petite proteins belong to more than 4,000 biological families. They can slip through cell membranes to carry messages, thus playing a key role in intercell communication and immune-system function.

Your gut microbes may also influence your behavior more than you expect. Although previous research has suggested a connection between gut microbial composition and animal behavior, few studies have rigorously investigated the possible correlation in humans. Doctoral candidate Anna Aatsinki at Finland’s University of Turku set out to explore this topic as part of the FinnBrain research project.

Aatsinki’s pioneering study analyzed the gut microbiota of 2.5-month-old infants and their behavior at 6 months old. She found some striking associations, including less negative emotionality and fear reactivity among those children whose guts featured greater bacterial diversity.

Research has shown that certain early-life temperamental traits may lead to later mental-health problems — such as anxiety disorders and depressive symptoms — so these results could help scientists develop methods for earlier diagnosis and prevention.

Autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases may be connected to gut microbiota, too. These diseases have been largely attributed to genetic predisposition and considered incurable. Recent research from Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum, however, suggests gut microbiota composition plays an important role. This raises hope for a cure.

Functional-medicine practitioner Terry Wahls, MD, is encouraged — though not particu­larly surprised — by the findings. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease, she has managed her symptoms using a self-designed diet and lifestyle program. (For more on the Wahls Protocol, see “The Care and Feeding of Your Mitochondria”.)

“I am very excited to see the basic research linking microbiome shifts to shifts in immune-cell activity and neuroinflammation,” says Wahls. “Finally, more scientists and neurologists are agreeing that diet quality and food choices have a major impact on brain inflammation and probability of future cognitive decline.”

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