Thursday, July 14, 2011

Groovy Probiotics

Music to start - classical again, let's go Russian with Rimsky-Korsakov and Procession of the Nobles (right click in new tab).

News next - This post will most likely be the last one for a week or more, though I'm updating a couple of older posts for Psychology Today and may post a link tomorrow.  I'm on vacation.  Whew.

Update on the July Whole30 - finishing up Day 14, and the main thing I'm finding is that it is difficult to eat quite enough.  I've lost a dress size (and I'm not trying to restrict calories), but can be a bit cranky before meals, and after the first week I've not been particularly hungry.  Though I love the freedom and convenience of rather frequent intermittent fasting, it has also been nice to simply eat three meals a day and throw in an extra banana, some berries, or a few macadamia nuts for snacks.  No "cheating" except for a half teaspoon of honey in tea on Monday morning (I had a good reason for it). All cravings for chocolate and Diet Coke were pretty much done by the end of the third or fourth day.  The honey ingestion didn't reawaken any of that.

Vacation will up the ante.  It will be difficult to be eating out at restaurants all the time and be as sure as one ought to be in the Whole30 about ingredients.  We'll see how it goes.  I'm not going to throw in the towel if I realize something is screwed up, and will likely just try to order steak as much as possible.  Veggies may be difficult as they are usually cooked with butter or covered with soybean-oil based salad dressing.

Now the paper!  This one is on the hypothetical side - all tell, no show, but rather fun.  I believe Chris Kresser tweeted it to my attention, or it could have been Dallas and Melissa.  Both of them sent me probiotics papers so thanks to both!

Ahem.  Probiotics function mechanistically as delivery vehicles for neuroactive compounds: Microbial endocrinology in the design and use of probiotics.

The down-low is that probiotics are thought to modulate the production of inflammatory particles (cytokines), affect the adhesion of pathogens to the gut mucosa, and other groovy things.  However, no one really knows how they do what it is that they do.  There are now several studies with intriguing evidence that probiotics can affect the brain (one of which I wrote about earlier this week).  One study even showed anxiety reduction in human volunteers (and mice) with administration of Lactobacillus helveticus and B. longum.  Again, since disorders that affect the gastrointestinal tract seem to co-exist quite frequently with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders, probiotics and gut health may have "profound clinical implications."

There is a great deal we don't know.  Many of the organisms can't be cultured.  It's difficult to study the secret life of the wee beasties while the host is walking around doing the day to day.  There are zillions of varieties of beasties, and typically the probiotics used for studies depend on what company is supplying them rather than a more specific rationale or knowledge of the effects of each species.

So what, exactly, do we know?  As far back as 1929 it was discovered that human carriers of certain Clostridium species who were given epinephrine to treat hives died suddenly of gas gangrene (oops).  For 60 years, it was thought the epinephrine somehow suppressed the immune system, leading to the sudden fulminant infection.  In the early 1990s, however, it was found that yes, indeed, gut bacteria could respond directly to human neurochemicals (such as epinephrine).  It has been further proven (with the flurry of recent papers) that the communication between the beasties and the brain is a two way street.  Neurochemicals are highly conserved in evolution - bacteria, plants, insects, and fish all produce forms of the neurochemicals called the catecholemines.  Thus it makes sense that bacteria in our gut can communicate directly with using, to some extent, the same "language" as our mammalian brains.  

Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species are known to produce GABA.  Escherichia, Bacillus, and Saccharomyces produce norepinephrine.  Candida, Streptococcus, Escherichia, and Enterococcus produce  serotonin.  Bacillus and Serratia produce dopamine, and Lactobacillus species produce acetylcholine.  That's pretty much the entire hit parade of major neurotransmitters (there's histamine and glutamate and a few others - and histamine is known to be produced by some bacteria that infect shellfish, for example, causing food poisoning).  

The most interesting case here is GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system (it chills things out) - and there are whopping amounts made by the bacteria in fermented foods, and is also found in yogurt and typical probiotic capsules.  GABA also turns out to be anti-inflammatory in the gut itself, decreasing the release of inflammatory cytokines.  Thus there is a plausible mechanism by which certain probiotics could decrease inflammation and aid symptoms of conditions such as IBD or IBS, and, considering the vagus nerve and all it's tendrils in the gut, have direct communication via the neurotransmitter GABA to the brain.

The author of the paper outlines some straightforward methods by which the individual effects of the probiotic species could be systematically characterized and studied.  He has developed a framework for the promising new field of microbial neuroendocrinology.  Of course his interest is along the lines of mining microbes for human use - it seems to me our ancestors and their fermented traditions have been mining microbes for these uses for some time, without all the species typing and science.  


  1. I just pulled the first of this year's home-made pickles out of the crock today. Ahhhh, life is good.

  2. Fascinating. Opens up whole new scope for CNS infections to affect behavior, mood, and brain function.

  3. Unlike human language which evolves at the speed of light, the Animal Kindgdom is still using ancient heiroglyphics. Cool! More reasons to eat my kimchi and drink my kefir.

    Too bad you've gotta lay off the butter for the whole30 thingy. That would be a deal breaker for me.

  4. Well, at home I make matsoni yogurt (known here in Japan as Caspian Sea Yogurt) which according to Wikipedia contains lactobacillus and streptococcus thermophilus strains. So I should be getting some great probiotics. Stuff is so good I eat it plain.

    Of course we also eat kimchi, umeboshi and a variety of pickles (Nara-zuke is a dark brown, long-fermented variety from, you guessed it, Nara Prefecture). And we also pick up Bavarian sauerkraut pickled in wine at the deli import store. So I think we have all our neurotransmitter bases covered!

    Don't know if this will post as "anonymous" so I'll sign off as


  5. Fascinating! And I always appreciate the musical accompaniment.

  6. The music was good, classical music has the unique quality to let me enjoy it while not distracting me from reading.

    I'm on the probiotics and auerkraut, I'm not sure what it will bring but it will probably be something positive.

    I read some article a while ago about gut flora producing regulatory T cells, even. Now I'm thinking that I seriously underestimated these critters. Never again!

  7. Aaron - the Whole30 is meant to be a rather strict elimination diet, so I see the reasoning behind butter removal as a temporary measure. I weathered the first two restaurant meals, baked trout and steak fajitas (hold the rice, sour cream, and tortillas) - though I'm pretty sure I got a good hit of O6 with those fajitas. When one has been up since 3am with two young children who have been up since 3:30 and barely napped, one doesn't feel like indulging in fruitless "what's the cooking oil" game with the waitstaff. I mean, it's not like they are going to use coconut oil or olive oil.

    However, we did hit up the local whole foods - so breakfast and lunch are covered from here on out.

  8. With my own testing over the last four years I saw huge changes on my GIfx testing as my omega 6/3 index evolved lower and as my gut neurotransmitters changed. I did simultaneous neurocognitive testing that showed I had issues with serotonin and GABA and as my testing improved my neurocognitive battery also showed a rebalance in all four major neurotransmitters. I think this really is the basis of the brain gut axis. Unlike Paul, I don't believe thinking about this axis is like an infectious process at work. I think it is more of a co evolution at work bringing hormonal balance in the gut's incretin system and the brain's hypocretin system. Nice Blog Emily.

  9. Great article

    What do you think of the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet?

    The book has an extensive bibliography but I wonder how consistent is the science behind the theory...


  10. There are a couple of TED talks relevant to your post.

    The Brain in Your Gut:

    The Secret Lives of Social Bacteria:

  11. Emily,

    OFF TOPIC: Ricardo is, saddly, closing his amazing Canibais e Reis blog. I know you are a fan of him, so I'm posting this here to urge anyone who has benefited from his blog to write a farewell to him at:


  12. This is fascinating stuff. It reminds me of learning about lichen in high school biology class - are they organisms themselves or symbiotic combination of organisms?

    If were not only getting nutritional byproducts but neurochemical cross-signalling with gut bacteria - then we're not fully "human" either - we're symbiotic combinations of human genes with GI microflora. Makes you think about what it means to be human.

    PS - what do you think about the use of probiotics derived from soil (not only from dairy, etc.)?

  13. Dr. Deans - Specifically regarding the cravings for Diet Coke that subsided, how did you overcome them? From reading your past post(s), it seems like elimination of the soda was problematic for you in the past. What changed this time around? My diet soda addiction is severe and I am really struggling with this, hence the question. I had no problem extirpating gluten grains, sugar/fructose or other neolithic toxins, but I seem to be completely powerless over this beast. Any insights would be greatly appreciated. Thanks and look forward to meeting you at AHS!

  14. Hi Aravind -

    Well, motivation and accountability helped. So coming out in public and making it the most important part of my Whole30 did the trick. I've also done it before - quit with the pregnancies, so I knew the cravings would pass after a few days. Since I was pregnant or breastfeeding for pretty much… 4 years, thereabouts, I had limited amounts, and at the end of that started paleo, so limited then too. Just ramped up this winter again and mostly drank it when I was feeling peevish at work, so not every day. Context is important.

    The best ways I found to conquer cravings in general are abstinence and cultivating disgust. While some people object to substitutions, I find they are helpful with abstinence - fizzy mineral water with lime, or tea to cover caffeine. I most strongly crave diet soda at work where it is often around, but if I don't buy it, I can't drink it. Fortunately my husband decided to quit it with me - we no longer have it in the house, (this has been the case for a couple months - I was just having one on a few workdays a week until the Whole30). Maybe to cultivate disgust read some of the work by that neurosurgeon McLeary - I think he has some good aspartame stuff.

    Good luck!

  15. Check this out

    To further investigate the mind-altering potential of benign bacteria, Cryan and colleagues at McMaster University in Canada fed mice a broth containing a benign bacterium, Lactobacillus rhamnosus. The scientists chose this particular bug partly because they had a handy supply and also because related Lactobacillus bacteria are a major ingredient of probiotic supplements and very little is known about their potential side effects, Cryan says.

    In this case, the side effects appeared to be beneficial. Mice whose diets were supplemented with L. rhamnosus for 6 weeks exhibited fewer signs of stress and anxiety in standard lab tests.

  16. Hi Emily

    Great post! I'm currently taking Nystatin for a Candida (gut) problem... I'm feeling crummy.. ache-y, fatigued, fog brain... Is it possible that the "die-off" or herxheimer effect that ppl feel while taking Nystatin for Candida is actually low serotonin? ie.., the Nystatin kills Candida, so there is less Candida to create serotonin...

    BTW - I've also read that too much Candida in the gut can inhibit serotonin production, so I'm confused about the link between Candida-Serotonin.



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