A primal connection exists between our brain and our belly. We often talk about a gut feeling when we meet someone for the first time, and we should also trust our gut instinct when making a difficult decision. However, this mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical: underlying these sensations is a network of neurons lining our entire digestive tract that is so extensive some scientists have nick-named it our “second brain.” Technically known as the enteric nervous system, it consists of millions of brain-cells embedded in the walls of the alimentary canal which measures about 9 meters end-to-end from the mouth to the anus. This mesh is so extensive that it can operate as an independent entity and can control our gut all by itself without input from our central nervous system, although they are in regular communication: they are connected by a complex network of neurons and a plethora of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feed-back about how hungry we are, whether or not we are experiencing stress, or if we have ingested a disease-causing microbe. This information super-highway is called the brain-gut axis and it provides constant updates on the state of affairs at your two ends1,2. In fact, anyone who has ever felt butterflies in the stomach before giving a speech, or a bout of intestinal urgency the night before an examination has experienced the actions of the dual nervous systems. If our two brains do not co-operate, then there is chaos in the gut and misery in the head: everything from queasiness to cramps, from diarrhea to constipation.

While our second brain cannot compose a symphony, write a treatise or solve a quadratic equation the way the brain in our skull can, it does perform an important role in managing the workings of our inner tube. The network of neurons in the gut is as plentiful and complex as the network of brain cells in our spinal cord, which may seem overly complex just to keep track of digestion. Why is our gut the only organ in our body that needs its “own brain”? Is it just to manage the process of digestion, or could it be that one job of our enteric brain is to listen in on the trillions of microbes residing in the gut?

While bacteria can make us sick, they also constitute a large part of who we are: taken together, these enteric microbiome, as well as others living elsewhere in and on the body out-number human cells 10 to 1, can weigh as much as six pounds, and make up a sort of organ whose functions have only begun to reveal themselves to science..

The bacteria in our bowels exist in a complex, but balanced homeostasis. They produce vitamins, help break down our food, and have important roles in nutrition, energy metabolism, host defense, and immune system development. Abnormal shift in the composition of our gut flora, also known as dysbiosis or dysbacteriosis, occurs with use of certain prescription drugs, illness, stress, aging, lousy dietary habits (sugar, processed foods, etc) and other lifestyle issues, leading to deficiency of good microbes and an overgrowth of organisms that are not usually predominant in the intestines, such as unfriendly bacteria, yeasts and parasites. The presence or absence of various bacteria has also been linked to obesity and inflammatory bowel disease.

Among numerous microbes in our belly, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium exert positive health effects by restoring the balance of gut flora. These beneficial bacteria, traditionally known as pro-biotics, have been employed to treat intestinal dysbiosis associated with prolonged antibiotic use, chemo-therapy, and traveler’s diarrhea. Certain micro-organisms in our gut also secrete a profound number of chemicals, some of which are the same substances used by our brain cells to communicate. In fact, much of our supply of these neuro-transmitters – an estimated 50% of the dopamine, for example, and a vast majority of the serotonin – originate in the intestine, where these chemical signals regulate appetite, feelings of fullness and digestion. These also appear to play key roles in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of depression and anxiety3.

The very same molecules in the brain are involved in controlling mood, stress, behavior, learning and memory, and many other functions. Because certain gut microbes influence the brain, functioning in effect as psychiatric drugs by producing these psycho-active compounds, the term psycho-biotic has been introduced to designate this novel class of potentially mind-altering pro-biotics, which may have wider applications in psychiatric practice. Indeed, the list of prospective treatments incubating in labs around the world is startling. Several international groups have found that psycho-biotics had subtle yet perceptible effects in healthy volunteers in a battery of brain-scanning and psychological tests. They also yield positive health outcomes in anxiety, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome, and exert beneficial effects in autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and dementia4-8. These bacteria not only positively affect cognitive function, but some reports even suggest the use of pro-biotics as a prophylactic measure in Alzheimer’s9-10.

Interestingly, these “good microbes” may also favorably influence behavior in dementia. Constipation is a common problem among those who are less physically active, and it disproportionately affects older adults. As the disease gets worse, those with Alzheimer’s disease have increasing difficulty communicating with others about their experience. As a result, they may be unable to report symptoms of common illnesses: pain and discomfort from a simple constipation may lead to restlessness or agitation, and can also escalate the person’s confusion11-12. As pro-biotics increase the number of weekly bowel movements, help soften stools and make them easier to pass, bacterial supplements may also improve behavior in dementia by both easing constipation and secreting neuro-transmitters as psycho-biotics.

Containing a fine blend of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, offers all the important benefits of pro- and psycho-biotics for your brain, gut and entire body.

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