Probiotics, the healthy bacteria in yogurt and certain fermented foods, may be mind-altering microbes that could be used to help treat depression and anxiety, according to cutting-edge new research.
A new “proof of concept” study using functional MRI offers the first evidence that bacteria consumed in food can affect human brain function, UCLA researchers report. The study found that women who eat probiotic yogurt regularly had altered activity in brain regions that regulate emotions and internal body sensations.
For example, during an emotional reactivity test involving viewing pictures of angry or frightened faces, the women who had consumed probiotics twice a day for a month showed decreased activity in these regions. This is an indication of reduced anxiety, according to neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, a brain imaging specialist who was not involved in the research.
Conversely, women who didn’t consume probiotics had stable or increased activity in these regions during the emotional reactivity test. The study, which included 36 women, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Gastroenterology.
"Our findings indicate that some of the contents of yogurt may actually change the way our brain responds to the environment,” Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, associate professor of medicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“When we consider the implications of this work, the old sayings 'you are what you eat' and 'gut feelings' take on new meaning,” added Dr. Tillsch.
A psychology researcher at University of Canterbury in New Zealand is so enthusiastic about the potential of probiotics to improve mood that she has launched a new study in which 80 patients with depression will receive probiotic supplements for four months.
“I hope my study will find that treatment with probiotics changes levels of certain substances in the blood and brain, essentially making people happier,” researcher Amy Romijn told 3 News.
An estimated one in 10 adults suffers from depression, according to the CDC.
“We urgently need a new approach to depression, because current therapies don’t have a very good success rate,” says Dr. Amen, who is also the author of Unleash the Power of the Female Brain: Supercharging Yours for Better Health, Energy, Mood, Focus, and Sex. “When you combined published and unpublished studies of antidepressants, the treatments we have today are no better than they were 50 years ago.”
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