I was at a very interesting talk recently, at the Ballymaloe Litfest. It was given by a Professor at UCC called Ted Dinan, who is a psychiatrist at UCC and is also involved in a lab, which studies gut health and how it affects brain health. Professor Dinan argues that our guts and our brains are much more closely aligned than we know, that our gut bacteria weighs nearly 1.2kg which is roughly the same as our brain and that having a healthy gut is closely aligned with healthy ageing.
In parallel with this explosion of interest in probiotics is a surge in interest from the scientific community in what probiotics actually do and which ones work best for which conditions. What Professor Dinan’s team is interested in is what he is calling Psychobiotics, particular probiotics, which affect our microbiome and help us to produce chemicals, which feed our brain and hence positively affect our mood.
But before we get into that, let’s roll back a little. What is meant by the term microbiome? For every cell in the human body, there are about 10 nonhuman cells. These microbial residents of our gut, skin, eyes and nasal passages collectively are referred to as the ‘microbiome’. I think of the microbiome as a garden we each have within us. And like any garden, it can be lush and healthy or barren and infertile, depending on what it has been fed and how it has been treated. As professor Dinan said, we feed our microbes and in return they give us what we need to stay healthy. Or we kill them off, and they can’t perform their essential roles, and we get sick.
According to Professor Dinan, how healthy our Microbiome is goes right back to before we are born, to how healthy our mother was, and to how we were born. Babies who were born through C-Section, don’t get inoculated with healthy bacteria from their mother, as they are born, and after the operation they are given antibiotics, which further kills off their internal flora. The next important stage for developing a healthy microbiome is being breastfed or not; breast milk contains probiotics, but formula doesn’t. So if a C-Section was the way your child was born, breastfeeding helps to rebuild their microbiome; or if formula feeding is what you have chosen, ask in your local Healthfood shop which probiotic is the best to add to the formula. In Organico we recommend Udo’s Infant Formula, as it contains a range of healthy bacteria and is designed for from birth upwards.
After birth and the first six months are out of the way, the main things that affect our microbiome would be how varied our diet is, whether we feed our garden well, and whether we stay clear of antibiotics in order to allow it to flourish. People who live in less urban, less hygienic environments also have much stronger and more healthy microbiomes than people in cities, which is why more and more people are steering clear of disinfectant sprays and letting their kids play in the dirt again.
Signs that you have dysbiosis or an imbalance in your microbiome are often described by the term IBS which stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is an increasingly common gastrointestinal disorder, the hallmark symptoms of which include abdominal discomfort or pain, distension and bloating, and diarrhea, constipation or a combination of both. A high sugar diet with many refined foods and few fruits and vegetables nearly always leads to something like IBS. And can lead to other diseases too if it’s not treated.
According to Professor Dinan, we can take care of our microbiome best by eating a varied diet, which should include as much fibre as possible — artichokes are particularly great food for keeping our guts healthy. Seaweed is another food our guts love. Avoiding antibiotics as much as possible is essential, as is avoiding artificial sweeteners such as saccharin. This means reading labels carefully as both antibiotics and sweeteners are sneaked into products where you would least expect them — toothpaste for example, or lozenges, chewing gum, and throat sprays.
So now let’s get back to Psychobiotics (I do like that term!). This area of research focuses on how probiotics affect our mood, and if the research is positive they will completely transform the way we treat people for anxiety and depression. The advantages are that where drugs have side effects, probiotics are completely safe, and where talking interventions are slow to produce results, preliminary research has show probiotics to be fast acting on mood. How they work is still being discovered, but one particular probiotic strain called Bifidobacterium has been shown to boost Tryptophan levels, which is important because tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Among other functions, serotonin promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness, and lack of serotonin is associated with depression. Many of today’s powerful antidepressant drugs work to increase the level of available serotonin in the brain, but at a price, so to be able to do it naturally without side effects would be very exciting.
So far there aren’t any specific probiotic products on the market for treating anxiety. The UCC team have been involved in developing a product that is proving to be hugely successful in treating IBS, called Alflorex, which does contain Bifidobacterium Infantis, a strain of Bifidobacterium, which is backed by over 15 years of research and has been proven to be effective for many conditions including IBS. In Organico we were slightly sceptical when Alflorex came along, as we already have so many popular probiotics, but we have been amazed at the level of response people have had when they tried it for IBS. If you have IBS, you can try taking Alflorex for a month and see how your symptoms improve. After that you do need to continue taking it, perhaps at a reduced dose, but as Professor Dinan said most probiotics are tourists in our digestive tract — they come in one end and out the other. So if we find one that works, regular supplementation is the unavoidable.
Since most people who live to old age and stay healthy have a healthy microbiome, I don’t think we should complain at this. Taking care of people at both ends of the spectrum of life was the thrust of Professor Dinan’s talk, taking care of our very young and of elderly people.
Recently, the same company, which brought out Alflorex have recently brought out a children’s product, which we are hoping to stock soon. It’s a clever drinking straw, which means no need to swallow anything, you just give your kids a drink of water or milk and they get their daily dose of healthy gut bacteria very easily!
For more information on any of these topics call in to Organico or into any one of the many excellent Health food shops we are lucky to have in West Cork. This column is purely my thoughts on health and wellbeing and is not designed to take the place of medical advice. Stay well folks!