We’ve long known that that the gut is responsible for digesting food and expelling the waste. More recently, we realised the gut has many more important functions and acts a type of mini-brain, affecting our mood and appetite. Now, new research suggests it might also play a role in our cravings for certain types of food.
The gut mini-brain produces a wide range of hormones and contains many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain. The gut also contains neurons that are located in the walls of the gut in a distributed network known as the enteric nervous system. In fact, there are more of these neurons in the gut than in the entire spinal cord.
The enteric nervous system communicates to the brain via the brain-gut axis and signals flow in both directions. The brain-gut axis is thought to be involved in many regular functions and systems within the healthy body, including the regulation of eating.
Let’s consider what happens to the brain-gut axis when we eat a meal. When food arrives in the stomach, certain gut hormones are secreted. These activate signalling pathways from the gut to the brainstem and the hypothalamus to stop food consumption. Such hormones include the appetite-suppressing hormones peptide YY and cholecystokinin.
Gut hormones can bind and activate receptor targets in the brain directly but there is strong evidence that the vagus nerve plays a major role in brain-gut signalling. The vagus nerve acts as a major highway in the brain-gut axis, connecting the over 100 million neurons in the enteric nervous system to the medulla (located at the base of the brain).
Research has shown that vagus nerve blockade can lead to marked weight loss, while vagus nerve stimulation is known to trigger excessive eating in rats.
This brings us to the topic of food cravings. Scientists have largely debunked the myth that food cravings are our bodies’ way of letting us know that we need a specific type of nutrient. Instead, an emerging body of research suggests that our food cravings may actually be significantly shaped by the bacteria that we have inside our gut. In order to explore this further we will cover the role of gut microbes.
Many gut bacteria can manufacture special proteins (called peptides) that are very similar to hormones such as peptide YY and ghrelin that regulate hunger. Humans and other animals have produced antibodies against these peptides. This raises the distinct possibility that microbes might be able to directly influence human eating behaviour through their peptides that mimic hunger-regulating hormones or indirectly through antibodies that can interfere with appetite regulation.