So we know bacteria is good for your gut (hello yogurt, kombucha, and those tasty probiotic gummies), but recent research is showing that these meddling microorganisms may be having a massive impact on your brain as well.
The scientific world is abuzz with talk of the microbiome – the tiny microbial ecosystem living within each individual – and how everything that goes on there could ultimately connect to what’s going on upstairs. So, for example, more and more researchers are looking at how the bacteria that live within every human might be connected to autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
To that end, it’s been pretty well-established in the medical community for decades that roughly 75 percent of the autistic population is affected by some kind of gastrointestinal issue, for example. That could include everything from food allergies to digestive problems. Studies have also shown that the microbiomes of autistic people are totally distinctive, and researchers have previously found that by pinpointing a chemical that is seemingly produced by bacteria, they could possibly alter autistic-like symptoms in mice.
Other studies link the brain and the gut by looking at how probiotics impact the mind. One study conducted by Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at UCLA, for example, confirms a connection between the brain and mind by looking at one ingredient: yogurt. In the study, 12 healthy women ate two cups of yogurt a day, while the other 13 did not. After four weeks, brain scans of the subjects as they reacted to different facial expressions (happy, sad, mad, etc.) provided surprising results: the yogurt eaters responded significantly more calmly to the faces they were seeing than those who were yogurt-free.
So what does this all boil down to, exactly? Well, one theory here is that after thousands of years living in human guts, these bacteria have evolved to produce chemicals that elicit a desired behavior in humans. By understanding which chemicals cause which reaction, that could eventually lead to a whole new world of treatment for mental illness, one that is more targeted and with fewer side effects than modern pharmacology.
Although most scientists agree the gut-brain reactions are likely complicated and multi-faceted, the connection between the makeup of the microbiome and human behavior is growing clearer. Our key takeaway: a cup of yogurt a day might just keep the anxiety away.