How’s your microbiota?
You may be thinking “I beg your pardon!” That is, unless you’re up on all the latest research and findings coming to light recently on the human gut.
Western medicine is finally realizing just how big a role the state of our digestive tract is playing on our overall level of well-being. And we’re not just talking physiological health; as it turns out, the microbe population residing in our intestine has a great deal of impact on our emotional and mental health as well.
The human microbiota (or microbiome) consists of tens of trillions of a wide variety of single-celled organisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. It’s with us from birth, and is unique to the individual. We affect its balance with everything we ingest, and it in turn affects nearly every function of the human body.
Probiotics have become very popular as dietary supplements, largely in response to the growing amount of research on the microbiome, and can have a profound effect on our digestive and physical health. But did you know they can also have an impact on our mood?
A new term – psychobiotics – is emerging in research circles to describe this impact, with studies demonstrating that boosting levels of beneficial gut microbes can increase feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, among other positive effects.
Fermenting for Probiotics
Additional studies are being done specifically on fermented foods as a dietary source of probiotics. These include fermented beverages such as kombucha, yoghurt, kefir, and foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and sourdough bread. Fermented foods are exposed to natural, beneficial bacteria that feed on the starches and sugars in the food, converting them to lactic acid. It’s the lactic acid that is primarily responsible for the distinctly tangy, sour taste of most fermented products.
While taking a probiotic supplement can certainly yield many health benefits, it seems that additional gains are to be had by consuming them via naturally fermented foods. The process of fermentation changes the nutrient and phytochemical makeup of a food, often amplifying specific nutrients and enhancing the bioavailability of others. B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc are just a few of the nutrients boosted by fermentation, all of which play a role in mood and mental health.
Numerous animal studies have shown that improving the balance of the microbiome through probiotic supplementation relieves symptoms of anxiety and depression, and human research is also showing significant promise.
A small study out of UCLA had a group of women eating yoghurt containing live probiotic cultures, and compared the results of their MRI brain scans with those of a control group who didn’t eat the yoghurt. The scans showed significant differences in regions of the brain involved in the processing of emotions; essentially, the yoghurt eaters reacted more calmly to angry and fearful stimuli than the control group.
According to the lead researcher: “The contrast was clear. This was not what we expected, that eating yogurt twice a day for a few weeks would do something to your brain.”
Incorporating Fermented Foods
If you’ve turned your nose up at fermented foods in the past, you’ll find that there are many new and interesting choices available. Try incorporating a little traditional miso or Thai fish sauce into your cooking, or blending your favourite organic live culture yoghurt or kefir into your morning smoothy. Making your own sauerkraut or kimchi is surprisingly quick and easy, and means a ready supply of delicious, health-giving condiments to add to your meals.
Whatever your tastes, including one or more naturally fermented foods into your daily diet can provide lasting benefits to your physical, emotional and mental health and well-being.