Could the microbes in your gut be affecting more than your digestion? According to a recent study at UCLA the answer is yes. The researchers have shown that beneficial bacteria in food, also known as probiotics, can impact brain function. The study used functional MRI (fMRI) to show that women who regularly consumed probiotic-containing yogurt showed altered activity in the brain regions that control the processing of emotion and sensation.
In other words not only does an imbalance of intestinal flora affect our physical health, but it can also contribute to anxiety and depression. Taking steps to boost beneficial bacteria in the gut is a great way of supporting your physical and mental health and an innovative way to treat anxiety and depression.
A healthy gut flora is harder to maintain than it used to be. The triple threat of broad-spectrum antibiotics, food pasteurisation and a modern diet with a reliance on processed foods, has taken a significant toll. The human microbe community has changed more in the past 100 years than in the previous 10,000 years. Could this be adding to the stress and anxiety that is a modern epidemic? The studies seem to suggest it could.
So when it comes to maintaining a healthy intestinal flora, it’s important to be proactive and take specific steps to combat a lifetime of exposure to antibiotics (both in foods and medicine) as well as exposure to the kinds of processed foods that deplete healthy bacteria.
Here’s the advice we give our patients at our health center, The Yinova Center in New York City.
Avoid processed foods where possible.
Processed and refined foods damage and destroy the healthy bacteria that make for a balanced microflora. These foods contain higher amount of refined grains, sugar and preservatives all of which can lead to imbalance. Sugar, in particular, provides fuel for pathogenic bacteria, but artificial sweeteners are even worse in that they destroy the healthy bacteria as this research shows.
Eat fermented foods that are full of friendly bacteria.
Eating a broad range of fermented foods introduces different types of beneficial bacteria into the intestines. In days gone by our ancestors preserved vegetables by making fermented products such as sauerkraut or pickles. They didn’t know it, but they were also maintaining a healthy gut flora. Unfortunately our modern attempts to eliminate bacteria from the diet, by sterilizing and processing our food, have robbed us of vital microbes and, with the possible exception of yogurt, foods that contain live bacteria have all but disappeared from our diet, killed off by pasteurization.
It’s important to include as many different sources of natural probiotics into your diet as possible because each introduces a different type of healthy bacteria into your intestines. A healthy gut is one with a wide range of beneficial bacteria. So pick some of the following and eat them regularly.
Yogurt – made from the milk of cows, goats or sheep. Vegans can find coconut or soy yogurt.
Lassi – an Indian yogurt drink, prized for it’s digestive effects.
Kefir – an Eastern European fermented milk drink.
Sauerkraut – this is a popular European fermented cabbage dish. Choose an unpasteurized brand.
Kimchee – this spicy Korean condiment is loaded with vitamins and helpful bacteria.
Miso – this Japanese soup reportedly contains more than 160 bacteria strains.
Pickles – Choose naturally fermented varieties that use a salt and water solution rather than vinegar.
Natto and tempeh – fermented soy bean products from Japan and Indonesia respectively.
Take a probiotic supplement
Probiotic supplements are a convenient way to replenish your healthy gut flora. Each company has a proprietary combination of bacteria in their products so it makes sense to vary the brands you use over time to increase your exposure to different flora.
Take a Prebiotic Supplement
Just when we all started to wrap our heads around the idea of probiotics, a new concept was introduced, namely prebiotics. What are prebiotics? They’re food ingredients that stimulate the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria. They’re different to probiotics, which just introduce new bacteria to the gut. Prebiotics are found naturally in bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, oats, onions, asparagus and chicory root. However, it’s quite hard to get an effective dose through food, so there are prebiotic pills on the market and it’s a good idea to combine a prebiotic with a probiotic to give fuel and sustenance to the beneficial flora as you repopulate your gut.
It’s definitely worth putting some effort into maintaining a healthy gut. Your digestive system and your immune system will thank you and so, according to this new research, will your brain.