Trust Your Gut

Posted on Feb 5, 2014 in Health & Wellness

It’s no secret that chronic stress and worry can cause tummy troubles, from acid-induced indigestion to a full-blown ulcer. The idea of probiotics to enhance the flora playing field for “friendly bacteria” in the gut isn’t new either. But according to researchers, the channel between the head and the belly appears to be a two-way street. In other words, the bacteria in your gut play a role in how you use your noodle.

A River Runs Through It

Your digestive system is essentially an ecosystem, the health of which depends on the integrity of its environment. Without enough of the right stuff living there and running through it, it becomes constipated, like a stagnant pond. Just as the presence of certain organisms ensure the balance of life in a natural body of water, so too does “friendly” flora play an important role in maintaining healthy digestion. According to researchers at the University of California, the bacteria in your gut also have a lot to do with maintaining equilibrium in your brain.

You’ve heard the old adage, “you are what you eat.” Certainly, what you put into your belly affects gut bacteria. We know that a person who consumes a diet high in fiber will have a different environment in the stomach in terms of flora than a person who eats a diet high in cholesterol and fats. We also know that the gut environment is improved upon by eating foods that contain live cultures, such as yogurt and fermented foods.

It’s Not All in Your Head

Previous research has also demonstrated that the brain sends messages to the stomach. Your brain tells you when you’re hungry, for example. Likewise, when you are stressed, overtired or simply “run down,” your stomach gets messages from your brain and responds in kind. This new research, which is based on a study published in Gastroenterology in March 2013, indicates that it works both ways. Poor eating habits and a compromised gut environment seems to cause the stomach to dictate a memo to the brain about current conditions. In response, anxiety and depression can occur.

Cognitive functioning also appears to be affected by the gut environment. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists examined the differences in brain scans between women who supplemented with different mixtures probiotics and those who didn’t for four weeks. They found that study subjects in the non-probiotic group showed less activity in regions of the brain involved in regulating sensory perception and emotional response, namely certain regions of the prefrontal cortex and an area of the brainstem called the periaqueductal grey. In contrast, subjects in the probiotic group showed greater activity in these regions.

Food Affects Mood

The message to take from the results of this small study is simple but somewhat surprising – not only can digestive disorders be addressed with dietary therapy, but there is now evidence that there is potential in treating cognitive, psychological and neurological disorders with diet as well. Specifically, we’re talking about autism, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The study authors also speculate that controlled management of beneficial gut flora may also help people who live with chronic pain.

The folks in the study that supplemented with probiotics were given a dairy “cocktail” that contained Bifidobacterium animalis subsp Lactis, Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, and Lactococcus lactis subsp Lactis. These are the good guys when it comes to strains of bacteria that you want to have more of in your stomach than not. Eating fermented foods like yogurt is a great way to get them into your gut. However, you should know that many of the yogurts available in the supermarket don’t contain any live cultures because they’ve been destroyed by heat or light. Your best bet is to go with organic dairy products, not only because they are far more likely to have live cultures but because they lack artificial sweeteners and colors. You can also take acidophilus capsules (Lactobacillus acidophilus), which can be found in health food stores.

References

University of California: Changing Gut Bacteria Through Diet Affects Brain Function

Huffington Post: Dietary Changes To Gut Bacteria Can Affect Brain Functioning, Study Suggests

Gastroenterology: Consumption of Fermented Milk Product with Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity; March 2013