Gut feelings

Bacteria don’t get the credit they deserve. There is reasonable certainty that they have been around on this planet since the PreCambrian era, which means they have been here for about 3.5 billion years. Yet what are the adjectives that we, who have been here a mere 4 million years, come up with to describe bacteria? Generally we rise to terminology like “icky”, “damn” or “ewwww” when we describe bacteria, but why aren’t we using terms like “persistent”, “intrepid” or “ingenious”? You don’t hang around any biosphere for more than three billion years without those admirable qualities, yet we view bacteria as things to be avoided and derided even though we know that our own bodies are full of these noble entities. In fact, research is showing that the bacteria in your digestive tract can even affect your thinking.

It has been calculated that a human adult houses about 1012 bacteria on the skin, 1010 in the mouth and 1014 in the gastrointestinal tract. That means there are around 10 times more bacteria than cells in the average human body. Probiotic bacteria from the digestive tract are increasingly used in food and pharmaceutical applications to balance disturbed intestinal microflora and related dysfunction of the human gastrointestinal tract. Research over recent decades has revealed that the intestinal microflora is important for maintenance of overall health, energy, optimal nutrition, manufacturing vitamins like K and biotin, production of short chain fatty acids to feed the cells of the colon, and protection against invading organisms. Increasingly we are understanding that the bacteria in your digestive tract also affect how your brain operates.

In a new report researchers analysed existing data to see whether probiotic supplements can affect brain function. In one study rats showing depressive behaviour due to separation from their mother were given the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium infantis. The probiotics not only normalised the rats’ behaviour but improved their immune function as well.

In another study volunteers who received either probiotics or a placebo for 30 days were measured for stress levels. It emerged that those given probiotics showed significantly reduced levels of stress. Yet another study showed that subjects taking probiotic yoghurt experienced improvements in mood.

According to the researchers both depression and stress are associated with inflammation in the body. They theorise that it is the immune modulating effects of probiotics that reduce inflammation and therefore support mood. At this stage it is a relationship that remains to be definitely clinically proven but sometimes you have to go on gut feeling.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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Gut feelings

There is a lot of self-talk that goes on within all of us. You know the kind of thing; “Stupid! Why did I have to mention the echidna?!” or “Man, this shirt is really workin’ for me today! Smokin’!” or perhaps, “Will I look like a pig if I eat that last biscotti? I really want it, though. Maybe if I create a distraction by setting the packets of sugar on fire I can grab it while everyone debates whether a latté will put out a sugar fire??”

If you haven’t had these exact thoughts you will have had others and you will have attributed them to your brain. In fact though, your body is a lot more integrated than that and while your thoughts might seem to be seated in your brain they in fact arise from the connectedness of your brain to the rest of your body. In fact, new research has shown that your thoughts and feelings can be shaped by an interplay between the bacteria that are present in your gut and your brain.

In the study researchers examined differences in behaviour between adult mice who had normal bacteria in their gut compared to mice who had “bacteria free” intestines. They found that the germ-free mice showed significantly more anxiety behaviour than the mice with normal bacteria.

On investigation the researchers found that the bacteria present in the gut regulate the hormonal link between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. This the “hormonal axis” involved in stress response.

They also showed that genes linked to learning and memory are altered in germ-free mice and they are altered in one of the brain’s central areas for memory and learning; the hippocampus.

All of this is important for a variety of reasons. For instance, it supports what is becoming widely accepted, which is that communication between the brain and body is a two-way process. It also offers ways of treating mood disorders, perhaps with probiotics, as well as highlighting a potential side-effect of antibiotic therapy.

The researchers who conducted this study believe that the state of your immune system and the nature of your gut bacteria significantly influences your personality. The exciting prospect that faces us is that it also means to treat “mental” conditions, therapy does not necessarily need to get into the brain but may be able to target the body.

There is indeed a lot of talk going on within you, and not all of it is coming from your head.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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