Most of us are aware of the important role of gut-microbes (so called ‘friendly bacteria’) in digestion, but evidence is coming in about their role in regulating mood, emotions and stress, according to a recent article in Scientific American Mind:
“In the past few years scientists have been discovering that these microscopic inhabitants of our body may be subtly altering our moods, emotions and perhaps even our personalities. Gut microbiota appear to alter gene activity in the brain and the development of key regions involved in memory and learning… Gut microbes could also account for some of the differences in mood, personality and thought processes that occur within and among individuals.”
Experiments in mice also suggest that our gut-microbes help us to deal with stress, and there is some evidence that the same is true for humans: “One example comes from infants—colicky babies have less diversity in their gut microbiota than is normal at that age and seem to be predisposed to stresslater on.
In 2011 French researchers published the results of a small clinical trial examining the antianxiety effects of probiotics. They had 66 patients take either a placebo or a probiotic formulation containing Lactobacillus helveticus and B. longum, two common inhabitants of guts, for a month. The participants were evaluated for anxiety and depression according to widely accepted checklists at the beginning and again at the end of the experiment. At the end of the month the group that took the probiotics showed the greatest decrease in signs of psychological distress as measured through the participants’ self-reports.”
The role of our intestinal bacteria is very wide-ranging, and it seems to be involved in digestion, immunity, and psycho-emotional realms. This makes perfect sense in Chinese medicine, where the connection between physical and mental health is well understood.
Specifically, when it comes to gut-bacteria we are talking about the domain of the Spleen in Chinese terms. As well as governing digestion, the Spleen is the first stage in the production of Qi for the whole body (including the immune system) and also relates to the emotion of Worry or Pensiveness. When the Spleen is weak, we can have tiredness, lack of energy, weak digestion, poor immunity and a tendency to worry or feel stressed.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that we rely on bacteria in this way, as all cultures have historically eaten live (bacteria containing) foods such as saurkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt and other fermented products. Only recently, with our obsession with hygiene, have we removed these wonderful foods from our diets.
To get live foods, you mainly need to make them yourself. Luckily, it’s very easy! To start I recommend the fantastic book ‘Wild Fermentation’ by Sandor Ellix Catz (you can read my review here) – or read about my experiments with Kombucha
You can read the full article here