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Do Gut Bacteria Make a Second Home in Our Brains?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola

Neuroscientists say they’ve discovered a road that gut bacteria travel to the brain, where they might be setting up housekeeping to influence brain processes and, possibly, the course of neurological disease in your body. While it was previously believed that all microbes, including those from the gut, have to break through the blood-brain barrier to affect the brain, the new findings show that the path to the brain may possibly include blood vessels or even nerves coming from the gut.

That path may even come through the nose, Science magazine said, noting that the findings left researchers wondering “whether the bacteria are attracted to fat and sugar in brain cells.” While the featured study looked at only 34 human brains, study authors are furthering their research with mouse brains. “It’s a long road to actually prove that,” one study author said, but “it’s an exciting path.”

Every day it seems like a new study is reaffirming that the connection between our gut and our brain is one we can’t deny. Nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms compose your gut microbiome, and this advancing science is making it clear that these organisms most certainly do play a major role in your mental and physical health.

What this points to is that the quality, quantity and composition of the bacteria in your gut have an enormous influence on your brain and overall health — as evidenced by the fact that we already know that your gut plays a role in mental health, stress and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

With Parkinson’s, research suggests it may actually start in the gut and travel to the brain via the vagus nerve, with studies showing that chemicals produced by certain gut bacteria can worsen the accumulation of proteins in the brain associated with the disease. If nothing else, all this emerging science unequivocally suggests that if we want to preserve our brain health, we absolutely must take care of our gut.

When it comes to mental health, the connection between your gut and mental health appears to be so strong that some have proposed probiotics may one day take the place of antidepressant drugs. According to an article published in the June 2013 issue of Biological Psychiatry, the authors suggest that even severe and chronic mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, might be eliminated through the use of certain probiotics.

To that end, we do know that your brain and gut use the same neurotransmitters for communication, one of which is serotonin — a neurochemical associated with mood control. However, the message sent by serotonin changes based on the context of its environment.

Interestingly, gut serotonin not only acts on the digestive tract but is also released into your bloodstream, and acts on your brain, particularly your hypothalamus, which is involved in the regulation of emotions.

All of this information should really drive home the point that optimizing your gut flora is of critical importance for good health and mental well-being. Reseeding your gut with beneficial bacteria is essential for maintaining proper balance, as beneficial bacteria help keep pathogenic microbes and fungi in check; preventing them from taking over.

Regularly eating traditionally fermented and cultured foods is the easiest, most effective and least expensive way to make a significant impact on your gut microbiome. Healthy choices include lassi (an Indian yogurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner), fermented grass fed organic milk such as kefir, natto (fermented soy) and various pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash and carrots.

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