In Ayurveda, the large intestine is the seat of vata. Vata is considered the dosha that governs the mind, intellect, creativity, and all the movement of the body. Thousands of years ago, without any advanced knowledge of the microbiome, Ayurvedic wisdom located the seat of the mind in the gut. Today, science has linked the health of the large intestine to longevity, health, mood, and much more. Let’s dig in!
In This Article
The History Of The Microbiome
In the Rig Veda, written some 3,500 years ago, there are descriptions of visible and invisible microorganisms called krimi. Even though the krimi could not always be seen, the writings still identified them on foods (like milk and butter), on utensils, in water, in the soil and on/in the body. Numerous microbe-residing locations were described. They could be non-pathogenic or pathogenic—including infectious contact with animals like birds. Diseases caused by krimi were called Krimi roga. The prescribed treatments aimed to alter the host or the environment, rather than kill the undesirable microbes.
In 1600s Europe, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was the first Western scientist to discover microscopic bacteria. He wrote, “I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” Then, in the 1800s, German pediatrician Theodor Escherich was the first to study the human gut flora. This triggered an explosion of research that is still happening today.
The proof that the gut was the seat of the mind (as Ayurveda declared) did not happen until 1999 when Dr Michael Gerson coined the phrase “The Second Brain” in reference to the large intestine. His groundbreaking research found that 95% of the serotonin in the body is manufactured in the gut. Shortly after, the majority of many of the body’s neurotransmitters were also found to be manufactured in the large intestine.
Then, in 2007, The National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) based on the discovery that there are trillions of bacteria in the large intestine. The HMP found:
- There are 100 trillion bacterial cells in the large intestine — compared to just 30 trillion human cells in the body
- The microbiome is acquired anew with each generation. This stands in contrast to the human genome, which is inherited.
- Each adult body has a distinct microbial community composition.
- There are an estimated 10 times more virus-like particles than bacteria in and on the human body (known as the virome).
- There are many microbiomes in the body: the gut, skin, respiratory tract, vagina, and more.
The Science Of Stress on The Microbiome
According to Ayurveda, the large intestine provides the ballast for the stability of the mind. When issues with intestinal health appear, Ayurveda understood this would manifest as a vata imbalance. Vata imbalances primarily impact the nervous system. They cause issues with stress, worry, sleep, restlessness, memory, movement, and much more. While the science was not fully understood in ancient times, what we now know as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is well understood to be the gut-brain and brain-gut connection. Stress will negatively impact this connection, causing a host of mood and mind-related concerns. Studies also show that probiotics can help restore balance to the HPA axis.
While probiotic treatments as we know them did not exist in ancient times, the focus in Ayurveda was to restore the health and integrity of the environment of the large intestine (or the seat of the vata). Restoring gut health was crucial for restoring mental health. Today, this is reflected in the emerging field of psychobiotics. This is also why Ayurveda blames 85% of all health concerns on an imbalance in the digestive system and thus prioritizes digestive health.
Since the discovery of the ‘second brain’ in 1999, research into psychobiotics has linked the function of the gut, brain, mind, and emotions to healthy populations of certain bacteria in your gut. Studies have found that if a pregnant monkey is regularly startled, not only will the offspring be more anxious, but they will have less stress-fighting and mood-protecting bacteria like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium. Studies also show that when these bacterial strains are depleted due to stress in humans, their ability to handle stress worsens—a vicious cycle. However, when supplemented with lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, they saw a dramatic improvement in how they responded to stress.
Finally, in a study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 40 healthy volunteers were given either a placebo or strains of Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus acidophilus. Compared to the placebo group, the probiotic-treated group experienced less sadness, negative thoughts, rumination, and anger.
Gut Health + Brain Function
The seat of vata also governs the function of the brain. This includes memory, cognitive decline, and the impact of age on the brain and cognitive function. In a study out of the University of Las Vegas and published in the journal Nature, researchers found 4 gut bacteria that are linked to age-related cognitive decline. They are Collinsella, Bacteroides, Lachnospira, and Veillonella. Some of these bacteria can alter the health of the intestinal lining. This can ultimately cause a leaky gut that allows the bacteria to interact with specific genes that are linked to age-related cognitive decline. While most gut bacteria are beneficial, when the gut environment is altered, it can allow undesirable bacteria to proliferate. The gut environment may be altered when stress, processed food, intestinal irritants, environmental pollutants, and pesticides are in excess.
Gut Health + Longevity
According to Ayurveda, after the age of 60, adults move into the vata time of life. During this phase, as an elder, you are revered and wisdom should be the prevailing influence. Sadly, in today’s world, increasing amounts of older adults are experiencing something called dependent longevity: they are living into their 70s + 80s, but they are dependent on a variety of medications. In centenarian cultures and most traditional cultures, elders were generally healthy, and young people looked up to them, looking forward to that time of life.
Today, there is plenty of science (and much more on the way!) that links gut health to longevity. As mentioned, there are certain bacteria that are linked to age-related cognitive decline. There are also certain bacteria that are associated with unnecessary aging. In a review of 27 human studies, higher levels of Akkermansia were found to be linked to accelerated aging. In another study with zebrafish, researchers found slowing age-related changes in the intestines to be linked to a longer lifespan. Of all the organs tested to be crucial to longevity, they found by altering the DNA in the gut to reverse intestinal aging, the whole body’s aging process slowed. They found that when the gut was healthy, the intestinal cells produced more of an enzyme called telomerase. This enzyme protects the chromosomal caps called telomeres from shortening. In her work, Nobel Prize-winning researcher, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph. D. explored the connection between stress, the shortening of the telomeres, and aging.
Conclusion: Gut Health Means Whole-Body Health
At LifeSpa, I write about ancient medical wisdom that has new science to back it up. One of the very first things you learn when starting your studies into Ayurveda is that the gut is the seat of vata and all health stems from there. As a result, I have written numerous articles linking the Ayurvedic understanding of digestive health with current scientific research. I encourage you to read those articles, watch those videos, and download all my digestive-related e-books. They are all free, and this knowledge is so important for us all to enjoy our wisdom years in excellent health!