Have you ever had a gut feeling? How about an emotion you feel in your gut? We love to discuss how our thoughts and emotions impact our intestinal. I have seen patients who “stress barf” and folks whose reflux increases when they are anxious. I’ve seen patients who manifest their fears and worries as abdominal pain or diarrhea. All of that makes sense, as the gut contains over 500 million neurons through which emotional distress can induce changes in your intestines that upset your tummy. However, most of us never thought it could go the other way and that the gut can also influence how you think. Most of us turn out to be wrong!
In recent years we have investigated the makeup of the microbiome, the large community of “commensal” (essentially friendly) bacteria that live in your intestines and help you digest your food. These bacteria have an impact on more than just food, and have been implicated in influencing things ranging from nutrient absorption to autoimmune diseases to mental health. There is enough new and interesting information about the microbiome to write a book (and people are), but one of the most fascinating recent developments is the
evolution of our understanding of prebiotics, which are nutritional components that promote the growth of certain especially friendly bacteria.
Even more fascinating, we have found that these prebiotics and their action on your microbiome can have positive effects on both perception of anxiety and on one of the main biological signifiers of stress, cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone which serves a vital purpose in our biology, but when stressed your body releases more of it, generating some of the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. A group of enterprising researchers decided to test the effects of prebiotic compounds, specifically Bimuno-galactooligosacharrides (B-GOS). This compound had previously been known to increase the presence of friendly species of bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, two bacteria that are markers of gut health.
45 healthy volunteers took supplements or a placebo for only 3 weeks, and the findings were striking. The volunteers took tests measuring their response to certain pieces of information, either positive or negative. The people who had taken B-GOS showed a reducedemotional response to negative information, and a more powerful response to positive. Not only that, but their levels of cortisol dropped significantly. This is thought to happen as result of the B-GOS being fermented into short chain fatty acids, which may have anti-inflammatory effects that reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.
Now, it is definitely worth noting that this does not replace seeking appropriate care for mental health issues. However, the implications are still quite amazing. Your diet can literally impact your mental health, improving your response to emotional stressors and likely improving your quality of life. Not too shabby for simple dietary supplement!