Research has already shown a connection between the belly and the brain (there's a reason it's called "gut instinct"), but new studies suggest that the food we eat and the bacteria residing within our gut may be powerful enough to alter our cognitive behavior.
These links between mind and body are helping researchers delve even deeper into viewing health and beauty more holistically.
According to researchers, changes in naturally occurring bacteria within the stomach may pack enough punch to otherwise affect brain chemistry. The new findings may not only help explain why certain gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, often occur concurrently with anxiety or depression, but also why some psychiatric illnesses, such as late onset autism, are associated with abnormal bacteria content.
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Given our guts are home to about 100 trillion bacteria, it makes sense that a disruption of this complex symbiotic relationship could send shockwaves throughout the body, ultimately affecting the mind.
When researchers at McMaster University disrupted the normal bacterial balance in the stomachs of mice, the mice manifested certain behavioral changes, in some cases becoming less cautious or anxious. What's more, they exhibited an increase in a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may be connected to depression and anxiety.
Giving even more clout to this gut and mind meld, another study found that probiotics could help the gut produce certain neurochemicals, which after being delivered to the brain via the blood, can affect gastrointestinal and psychological health.
"Until recently the idea that probiotic bacteria administered to the intestine could influence the brain seemed almost surreal," Professor Gregor Reid, from the University of Western Ontario, said in a commentary piece about the study. But not everyone's surprised by these new findings.
"It makes sense to me," said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science who studies the effects of food, exercise and sleep on the brain. "Bacteria play an important role in digestion, and the digestion of food actually can generate a chemical, which can affect the immune system and reach the brain."
But don't go thinking your probiotic supplement can alter your brain just yet. Not everyone in the health community is convinced that probiotics are powerful enough to affect behavior.
"There is not enough reliable evidence demonstrating the ability of probiotics to enhance cognitive functioning," said nutrition expert Keri Glassman. "We may see the gut-mind connection in the future, but currently there is not enough supportive research."
While the jury may still be out on whether what we eat (or what's already in our stomachs) can really affect our cognitive behavior, Glassman points out that there are certain foods that can still help boost our moods.
Oatmeal, for example, is a complex carbohydrate that causes the brain to produce serotonin, or the "feel good hormone," said Glassman. Chocolate, on the otherhand, contains caffeine, a stimulant that promotes brain function and fosters the release of mood-enhancing endorphins, she adds.
And while the effects of munching on a piece of chocolate or tucking into a bowl of oatmeal may not be strong enough to alter your innate behavior, they may be able to put a smile on your face when you've got a case of the Mondays. Well, the chocolate, anyway.