Inside our intestines we are co-existing with an amazing number of bacteria. It’s been estimated that these bacteria number in the trillions (more than the number of cells in our body), weigh from 1 to 2 kilograms, and is called our “microbiome”.
It might sound like science fiction, but the latest research—from the USA and Europe, in multiple top medical centers—is showing that not only do these bacteria influence how we digest food, but also they can modify how well our immune system works, and even influence our mood. It may be that an imbalance in our microbiome can make us depressed, anxious, or, in a child, predispose to autism.
Some of the earliest studies about how the micorbiome might influence our brain came about when autism researchers discovered that many autistic children also had gastrointestinal problems, and what seemed to be an unusual microbiome. Some early animal research suggests that autism symptoms might improve by normalizing the microbiome.
How can this be? How can the bacteria influence how we think and feel? It has been known for a long time that the microbiome is necessary to digest food, and synthesize vitamins. You might notice how important is your microbiome when you take a course of antibiotics and you get diarrhea. You have killed off many of the bacteria in your gut—disturbed your microbiome—so your food is not being digested as well.
The microbiome-brain connection is so new that scientists don’t know yet how the gut affects the brain, but the main theory is that the bacteria produce chemicals that are carried to the brain, or that these chemical substances alter our immune system which somehow changes brain functioning. Also it may be that the microbiome affects the “vagal nerve” which is a long nerve that goes from our gut area to our brain.
One of the leading researchers in the field, Athena Aktipis, PhD from the University of California, San Francisco says: “Targeting the microbiome could open up possibilities for preventing a variety of diseases from obesity and diabetes to cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the importance of the microbiome for human health”.
Many researchers believe that in the near future, we might be able to help people who are depressed, or excessively anxious, by manipulating their microbiome through dietary changes and adding probiotics to their diet. A 2013 study from the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that women who ate yogurt that contained probiotics, one cup twice a day, for a month, were calmer at the end of the study. They had brain scans before and at the end of the study.
The gut – brain connection is a hot new topic in research and we will keep you up to date here as more studies are released. In the meantime, it might not be a bad idea to add some probiotic-filled yogurt to your daily diet.
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