Recent studies have started to link gut bacteria to brain functions and conditions such as autism, anxiety, depression. In some cases, not having enough of a certain bacteria or having too much of another can lead to these ailments. Before we explore this link, let’s start by defining what gut microbiota really means.
Also known as gut flora, gut microbiota describes the microbes living in our intestines. On average, we have at least 1,000 different types of bacteria, containing over three million genetic materials, living in our colon. While one-third of them is the same from person to person, two-thirds are unique to each individual. Your intestinal makeup serves as your unique gastrointestinal fingerprint.
So how does gut bacteria correlate to changing brain functions? While most of us are familiar with terms like “gut-wrenching” or “gut-instinct” it turns out there is now tangible proof that the intestines and mind work together. Sometimes dubbed your second brain, your belly is linked to your mental functions in a number of different ways. Scientists have discovered that a thousand different types of bacteria can play a role in autism, depression, anxiety, and your overall mental/emotional well-being. Intriguingly, researchers and doctors have discovered that around 75% of autistic people also have some degree of gastrointestinal issues, such as digestive complications, gluten sensitivity, and food allergies. Studies have found that patients with autism have distinctly different gut microbiome from the control groups they observed.
In one experiment, scientists fed Bacteroides fragilis, generally considered a good bacteria that resides in most people’s intestinal tract, to mice with symptoms of autism. This changed the mice’ microbiome and showed significant positive changes in their behavior. They were more calm, increasingly better at communicating, and stopped exhibiting the same degree of repetitive behaviors that are often a trademark of autism. While it’s still unclear if certain types of gut bacteria are exacerbating or improving the situation, scientists are looking to learn more about how these microbes impact autism.
In terms of anxiety and depression, a gastroenterology researcher has discovered that lactobacillus and bifidobacterium both reduce anxiety behaviors in mice. These two microbes seem to play a major role in the gut-brain connection. While researchers are still trying to determine the full list of microbes that play a role in increasing or reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and autism, initial studies indicate that a link does exist.
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