Most of us know “bacteria” as something that has potential to cause us harm but do you know that some bacteria are really beneficial to us? In fact, most of these beneficial bacteria reside in our guts. This is known as a microbiome – which really means a huge ecological community of microorganisms that share our body space. Early research is suggesting that these bacteria in our gut might have a significant influence on our brain functions.
The gut is often referred to as the “second brain,” as it is the only organ to develop its own independent nervous system which consists an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the gut wall. In fact, even the vagus nerve (which runs all the way from the brain to the abdomen) between the gut and the brain is to be severed, it can function on its own for a while.
When we are born, our gut is sterile. As we grow up, we develop a distinctive and diverse brew of bacterial species as determined by genetics and bacteria that lives around us. These gut bacteria help to regulate digestion and metabolism, extract and make vitamins and other nutrients from food that you eat. They also help to program the body’s immune system.
Hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood are also produced by the bacteria in our gut. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and GI activity.
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Studies in Animals
Researchers experimented with mice noticed that when they gave different groups of mice specific cocktails of antibiotics that changes the bacteria in their guts, they found that the mice were changed drastically in terms of behaviour. Mice that were normally shy became very bold and vice-versa. What was interesting was that they revert to their normal behaviours once they were no more fed those cocktails of probiotics.
An additional study found that when mice who exhibited “behaviors similar to some of the symptoms of autism in humans,” were administered probiotics, their symptoms greatly disapproved, and in some cases, disappeared altogether.
However, researchers have not proven if it will have the same effects in humans as shown in mice.
Studies in Humans
One study, conducted at UCLA, saw researchers giving one one group of women yogurt with probiotics, another group a similar product, but without probiotics, and the last group with no food product. They then tracked the brain activity of these women when they were at rest and when they were participated in an emotion-recognition test. They found that women who consumed the probiotic yoghurt experienced less anxiety and stress, compared to those women who didn’t consume probiotics.
Do you remember that the gut bacteria also helps in the immune system? Numerous studies have shown that stress actually suppress the work of the beneficial gut bacteria. This leads to vulnerability to diseases and negative emotions as it feeds back to the central nervous system. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, which is usually thought to be the main contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin is usually used as a treatment for ADHD and depressed patients.
While research is still in their early stages, it shows promise that a balanced and healthy diet that supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria aids the brain.
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