Your body contains as much as ten times more bacteria and micro-organisms than actual human cells. These micro-organisms live on the surface of our skin, in our mouths and noses, in our intestines, and our genital areas. From top to bottom, inside and out, we are host to a collection of trillions of bacteria that live with us every day.
Instead of being a cause for alarm, this community of bacteria helps with a number of our necessary physiological processes, supporting good digestion and gut health, proper immune function, and combating possibly threatening "bad" bacteria. These "good" bacteria may play a role in preventing allergies, skin conditions, yeast infections, and more. This collection of micro-organisms is often referred to as the "human microbiome."
A recent article on NPR1 spotlights one more potential benefit to the "good" bacteria on and in our bodies, diving into recent research on the connection between gut bacteria and the workings of our minds.
Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, is researching this link. Mayer is performing MRI scans to look at the brains of volunteers and comparing the types of bacteria to brain structure. Mayer is looking for a connection between the bacteria in our digestive systems and their potential to help mold brain structure, influence our moods, behavior, and feelings. Mayer's findings so far are that the specific mix of microbes in our guts might help determine what kinds of brains we have, or how we are "wired".
Mayer, a self-professed "skeptic by profession", says "I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains."
Others are doing similar research, like Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Ontario. Collins is leading a research team looking for a connection between gut microbes and brain chemistry and behavior in mice.
Collins' team ran an experiment where the gut bacteria of anxious mice was replaced by the bacteria from fearless mice. "The mice became less anxious, more gregarious," says Collins. And when the fearless mice were given the gut bacteria from the anxious mice, they became less emboldened and more timid.
When Collins altered the microbes of aggressive mice by changing their diet and giving them either probiotics or antibiotics, the mice were calmed.
Paul Patterson is another researcher looking at the link between probiotics and behavior on mice at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. He hopes to prove that probiotics might correct problems the animals have with their gastrointestinal systems that many autistic children also have.
Scientists are still unsure of the exact mechanism used by gut bacteria to communicate with the brain. Some may use the vagus nerve, which runs from the gut to the brain. Others may produce their own versions of neurotransmitters. However these bacteria are communicating with our brains, the research that shows they are doing so continues to grow.
Seems like that "gut-feeling" you get may have a scientific reason behind it, after all!
How do you ensure that you have healthy, balanced levels of good bacteria in your system? Eating a diet rich in traditionally prepared, fermented food is a good start. Kefir and yogurt are foods that contain beneficial microbes, and if you can make your own cultured foods at home it is even better. Store-bought and processed foods often undergo extreme temperatures that can damage good bacteria, so fermenting and culturing your own foods at home allows you to control processing temperatures.
Anytime that your natural bacteria levels are depleted (by a round of prescribed antibiotics, for example), replenish them with an intensive dose of probiotics. Look for a probiotic formula that features multiple strains of bacteria, and keep it cold to maintain the integrity of living microbes. Some people like to maintain a daily regimen of probiotics to keep their gut health, immune system functioning, and to keep "bad" bacteria or yeasts at bay. Discuss your options with a health care provider to see if daily probiotic use is recommended for you. It just might positively affect your mood and mind, too.
Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods
1. NPR.org http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/11/18/244526773/gut-bacteria-might-guide-the-workings-of-our-minds
2. Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ultimate-social-network-bacteria-protects-health
3. Baylor College of Medicine https://www.bcm.edu/departments/molecular-virology-and-microbiology/microbiome