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Your Diet Affects Brain Function, New Study Shows

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Most people have eaten certain foods and realized, afterwards that they have an impact on how they’re feeling physically. Too much pizza and you might feel heavy and lethargic. A cup of coffee might make you feel more alert or jittery and nervous.

But when we think of the effects food has on our bodies, we typically are thinking of the nutrients they contain or how they impact our energy levels. We often don’t connect food to our brain and emotional functioning.

But in recent years, scientist’s understanding how bacteria in your gut can affect your mind is expanding. And this is important because according to the Center for Neurobiology of Stress “chemicals released from the gut after a meal produce a feeling of wellness and turn off hunger, while the role of the trillions of “good” bacteria in our intestine may play a role in setting our background emotions and pain sensitivity”.

And now a new study links foods you may consume, that contain certain bacteria, and brain function. After four weeks of eating yogurt with probiotics-that is live bacteria that help grow the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut– activity of brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation changed in healthy women. Using fMRI images of the brain while asking participants to perform an emotional task, the study compared images of the brain before and after healthy women ate probiotics.

Of course, in some ways we’ve all known the brain is connected to our guts. Butterflies in our stomachs are often a symptom of stress. And stress and anxiety have been known for some time to contribute to gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

This research may support the experience of people who report that they never experienced depression or anxiety until after they developed problems with their digestive system. “Our study shows that the gut-brain connection is a two-way street,” says Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

Changes in the brain weren’t limited to areas associated with emotion. Researches also found that areas associated with sensory processing in the brain were also impacted by the probiotics.

The researchers suggest that this study raises a complex array of questions. Are nutritional strategies beneficial in the treatment of anxiety and other problems with mood? Might researchers find ways to manipulate gut bacteria to treat chronic pain conditions or other brain related diseases such as Alzheimers? Can repeated courses of antibiotics impact brain functioning?

We don’t currently have the answers to these and other questions this research raises, but as scientists continue to focus on bacteria in our guts and brain functioning we are likely to see more surprising and enlightening findings.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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