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Probiotics Are Weird

If you've spent any time in the yogurt aisle, or noted the proliferation of stoked middle-age women eating brands of yogurt like Activia on a TV screen or subway ad or wherever, you have some conception of what a probiotic is. It involves the "good...
September 1, 2011, 7:19pm

If you’ve spent any time in the yogurt aisle, or noted the proliferation of stoked middle-age women eating brands of yogurt like Activia on a TV screen or subway ad or wherever, you have some conception of what a probiotic is. It involves the “good” bacteria, the stuff that lives in your gut—among other places—and helps you, theoretically, take great dumps. Which is a task that middle-aged women would seem to have difficulty, if the target market of priobiotic yogurt is any indication. (Such marketing has since proved to be false, and that the promise of great dumps was wildly overblown.)

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So you have microflora and microfauna all over your body, just living in it. So, like bacteria and micro-organisms that just live there. We’re their Earth. And they do things for us, like help digest food in our intestines: good bacteria synthesizes some vitamins and other compounds, helps with immunity, and handles indigestible carbohydrates. There’s bad bacteria too, of course, and that’s the kind you know a lot about because it’s the one that causes infections and kills people.

But there’s the good stuff, and the good bacteria, probiotics, have a lot of other potential to do good stuff in the body besides helping women take great dumps. You know how when you’re stressed out, that stress travels to your stomach and the next thing you know you have acid chewing through the back of your throat like you just downed the guts of a car battery? What if it worked the other way around, and what happens in your gut impacts the stuff happening in your brain. Not just in an ow this sucks sense, but in a very direct chemical way.

New research published currently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences done on mice is finding that, well, mice with probiotics are. . .chill. Or more chill than mice without them. We’ve found evidence before that probiotics may help with stress and anxiety, but it looks like they may be effective in healthy people as well or, possibly in the future, people suffering from depression.

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Nature writes:

[Pharmacologist John Cryan]’s group fed a strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus — a species found in some yoghurts — to 16 healthy mice. The dose they used was roughly the same as the amount of probiotic cultures claimed to be in a pot of Actimel yoghurt. The team then ran the mice, along with 20 mice fed a bacteria-free broth, through a battery of stress tests. In negotiating a maze, the mice that received probiotics ventured out into open spaces more than twice as often as the control mice, suggesting that they were less anxious. And when forced to swim, the bacteria-fed mice were slightly more prone to struggle — rather than give up — than their broth-fed brethren. “These mice were more chilled out,” says Cryan, adding that the effects of the probiotics were similar in magnitude to those seen in mice for antidepressant drugs.

The research went deeper than looking for chilled out mice, and delved into brain chemistry. The researchers found that probiotic-fed mice had a significant drop in corticosterone, a stress hormone, in the brain. “It’s pretty convincing,” Brett Finlay, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, tells Nature. “These days our microbiota are being implicated in just about everything.”

Think about it, though, if all those little bacteria can change how your brain works, should we be asking who exactly is running the show here? Us or them? Do people with better gut bacteria colonies live happier lives? In any case, who’d a guessed just how closely related great dumps are to mental health? The answer is “me.”

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.