Do you usually eat yogurt for breakfast? If you do, it’s likely because you know it will keep you regular. Many people eat yogurt for the probiotics, the healthy bacteria, which helps keep the digestive tract functioning well. Your gut is full of bacterial cells. These little organisms are there helping you to break down food and process it. This is why you sometimes have gas, but without the assistance of these critters, you would not be able to digest anything at all.
While most of us have known about probiotics and digestive health for some time, we are just now being told that there is another way in which bacteria in our guts help us. Research published recently in the journal Gastroenterology proves that probiotics in our diets can actually affect the way our brains function. Who knew there was a connection between our guts and our minds? The implications for this research are huge. With more studies, scientists may be able to come up with treatments for depression, anxiety disorder, eating disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and a number of other mental and neurological conditions.
The Brain-Gut Connection
Researchers from UCLA are the first to confirm that probiotics in your gut can and do affect the way your brain functions. The study involved 36 female participants between the ages of 18 and 55. For four weeks, one group of participants ate probiotic yogurt twice a day, another group ate a similar product, but without probiotics, and the final group ate no yogurt. Both before and after the four-week period, the researchers created images of the women’s brains while completing a task that involved matching faces expressing various emotions.
The women who had been eating yogurt with probiotics for four weeks showed changes in certain regions of the brain related to emotion and sensation. The same changes were not seen in the women who ate no probiotics over the four-week experiment. The researchers do not yet understand why there is this connection between the gut and the brain, or how it works, but they have proved that it exists.
Before this current experiment, researchers already knew that there was a connection, but only that it went from the brain to the gut. For instance, stress and other negative emotions are known to cause digestive issues. Now, we also know that the gut can send information to the brain and change its functioning. In other words, the connection is a two-way street.
Implications for Mental Health
The results of this recent study linking probiotics to brain function are very exciting for those who work in the mental health professions. That what we eat can affect our brains, particularly the parts of our brains that are related to emotion, means that food could help treat disorders of the brain. More research should be able to tell us if taking probiotic supplements or eating more yogurt could help us feel less stress, anxiety, and depression. The prospects are good and studies in animals have already shown that mice produce lower amounts of stress hormones when consuming probiotics. We also know from other animal studies that changing the bacteria in the gut can change an animal’s mood, either for the better or the worse.
Probiotics could also help people who suffer first and foremost from digestive issues. People with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and other digestive disorders often feel depressed, stressed, and anxious as well. Treatment with probiotics could help treat both the digestive symptoms and the mental health symptoms at the same time. Probiotic treatment may even extend to helping addicts overcome their abuse of substances, or even food. If having a healthy set of bacteria living in your gut can affect your mood and the functioning of your brain, it is also possible that it could help addicts give up their vices
The connection between probiotics and the brain also brings up a troubling concern: the overuse of antibiotics. When you take a course of antibiotics for an infection, it kills bacteria indiscriminately. If you take antibiotics for too long, it can wipe out a lot of the good bacteria in your gut. And we now know that doing so could affect your mental health.
All of this new information about bacteria, probiotics, the gut, and the brain is in its early stages. Researchers need more time and more experiments to figure out exactly what is going on between the gut and the brain, and how to turn that into effective treatments that help people overcome mental illness, brain disorders, and addiction.