Research suggests the vast ecosystem of organisms that live in our digestive systems might be as complex and influential as our genes in everything from mental health to athleticism and obesity. 

 

In an article from The Guardian Online, Philip WJ Burnet, associate professor at the psychiatry department at the University of Oxford, has had promising results testing the effects of prebiotics on mood. Prebiotics are complex carbohydrates that humans can’t digest, but that probiotic bacteria thrive on. Essentially, prebiotics “are dietary fibres that feed bacteria already in our gut,” he says. “I argued that instead of proliferating the growth of single species as in taking a probiotic, if you eat these fibres you grow lots of species of good bacteria, so you’re more likely to get a hit.”

A very small, short trial – three weeks and involving 45 healthy volunteers – tested a commercially sold prebiotic called Bimuno, and suggested this might have the potential to reduce anxiety. “When you give someone an antidepressant,” says Burnet, “before you see a change in their depression or anxiety, it changes some underlying psychological mechanisms. You’re more vigilant to the positive, for example, if you’re on an antidepressant or are happy.”

In his study, people without the supplement or in the placebo group paid more attention to negative imagery because, he says, “I think we’re naturally morbid … But those on Bimuno paid more attention to the positive.” He also stresses: “Prebiotics, or indeed any dietary supplements, are unlikely to replace the drugs used for the treatment of psychiatric illnesses. But they might be useful in helping medication work better in people who do not respond very well to them.”

Should the worried well be hitting the prebiotics? “More studies are needed to test if they are a quick fix for brain disorders per se,” he says. “But if someone is unwell or feeling down from a cold, because the bacteria modulate the immune system, a quick fix would be prebiotics.” People hate hearing it, he says, but supplements can’t replace a healthy, varied diet. Lentils, asparagus and jerusalem artichokes are examples of natural prebiotic sources. “But who wants to eat a bowl of jerusalem artichokes when you can just pour some prebiotic powder on your cornflakes?

 
 
Author: Amy Fleming

 

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