Gut feeling: probiotics may affect our moods

KefirProbiotics and gut health are a very hot topic in nutrition these days.  It’s not just about piling on the fiber anymore.  We want to nurture beneficial microbes and discourage bad ones.  The connection to healthy digestion and immune function are rather obvious.  The connection to brain function and behavior?  Not so much, but that may be changing.

There’s a growing body of research that suggests our gut microbes do influence brain function, mood and behavior.  One researcher who was persuaded to look into the matter was initially skeptical, but unexpected results convinced him to re-direct his research focus.  A probiotic food significantly affected brain processes controlling emotion and sensation.  Other researchers have recognized two-way communication between the gut and the brain.  Most of understand how emotions and stress can adversely affect the gut, but gut disorders apparently can adversely affect brain function.

In one recent study, healthy women consumed either a probiotic drink or a control drink.  Using MRI scanning, the researchers found that the women on the probiotic had significantly different brain activity when processing tasks that involved emotion or sensation.  Other studies on mice have shown similar effects of probiotics.

Does this mean probiotics will cure bad moods or make you smarter?  The studies so far absolutely do not conclude anything like that.  They don’t even clarify how probiotics work.  Is it the actual bacteria?  Some metabolite bacteria produce?  Which bacteria have the best effect?  We do not know.  All we know is that in these particular studies with specific types of probiotic microbes, effects were measured.

It’s food for thought.  Someday perhaps some psychological problems will be treated by encouraging beneficial gut microbes.  In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with eating a healthy diet that includes probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir and other naturally fermented foods.

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