Do probiotics help mental as well as physical health?

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Healthy microbes living in the gut (often called the ‘second brain’), are known to be greatly beneficial to digestion and overall physical health.

But now a growing body of evidence suggests that a well functioning, healthy gut is a key element in mental health as well.

According to researchers at Britain’s University of Oxford, supplements that boost the levels of ‘good’ bacteria alter the way people process emotional information.

British researchers studied 45 healthy adults age 18 to 43 who took either a daily probiotic or a placebo for three weeks. The test subjects then completed a series of computer tests to see how they processed positive and negative words.

Those on the probiotics were clearly less affected by negative information than those taking a placebo.

Those who took probiotics also had lower levels of cortisol in their morning saliva. High cortisol levels are linked with stress, anxiety and depression.

The study was published in the December 3 issue of the journal Psychopharmacology.

Earlier and more comprehensive French studies had already followed a group of people who suffered from anxiety and depression. After 30 days of probiotics researchers said the subjects had reduced levels of psychological distress.

Dr. Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto in Canada, said the apparent link between probiotics and mental health is “becoming a very interesting question in the field. Animal data looks very suggestive.”

Researchers cautioned that it is “too early” to state definitively that probiotics improve mental health in humans, and they aren’t sure how changes in the gut bacteria affect the brain.

But a number of studies over the last few years suggest that the vagus nerve conveys sensory information from the gut to the brain. The gut also affects the immune system, which is an influence on the brain and attitudes.

But for us everyday natural health advocates, it’s a simple no-brainer to figure out that an unhappy gut subjected to a steady diet of the Standard American Diet is going to send negative messages to the brain.

After all, a gut longing for nutritious food is only going to take the insult of processed junk food for so long before it rebels.

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