Several studies have been conducted in recent years to determine whether or not there is a link between the human brain and gut bacteria. While most of these studies have been conducted on animals, growing research is showing that there is in fact a brain-gut connection.

Research out of Oxford University is offering a look into the connection between gut bacteria and mental health. Neurobiologists have found that supplements designed to boost healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract – prebiotics – may have an anti-anxiety effect. Perbiotics are carbohydrates that act as a nourishment for strains of good bacteria – probiotics. They have the ability to alter the way that people process emotional information.

Oxford neurobiologist Dr. Phillip Burnet was the study’s leading author. He told The Huffington Post, “Prebiotics are ‘food’ for good bacteria already present in the gut. Taking prebiotics therefore increases the numbers of all species of good bacteria in the gut, which will theoretically have greater beneficial effects than a single species.”

The Study

Researchers asked 45 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 45 to take either a prebiotic or a placebo. They took these every day for three weeks. After the three week time period had passed, researchers completed tests to asses how the participants processed emotional information.

The results revealed that subjects who had taken the prebiotic paid less attention to negative information. They paid more attention to positive information compared to the placebo group. These findings suggest that the prebiotic group had less anxiety when confronted with negative stimuli. This effect is similar to the effect observed in people who have taken antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

Researchers also found that the subjects who took prebiotics had lower levels of cortisol in their saliva when they woke up in the morning. Cortisol is a stress hormone which has been linked to anxiety and depression.

Similar Findings

Similar studies have found that altering gut bacteria has a similar anxiety-reducing effect in mice, but this new study is the first to document the process in humans. A study conducted at UCLA found that women who consumed probiotics by regularly eating yogurt exhibited altered brain function. 

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