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Gut-brain connection a 2-way street, researchers find

I’ve got a tip on a mind-altering substance that is inexpensive, legal and readily available. UCLA researchers demonstrated that the beneficial bacteria in yogurt altered brain function during tasks and rest.

Published in the June issue of Gastroenterology and funded by the yogurt maker Danone, this small study was a first to show that the gut-brain connection is a two-way street.

The 36 women in the study were fed a yogurt with healthy bacteria (probiotics), a yogurt without bacteria, or nothing. All of them were given functional MRIs after the four-week study period.

Here’s how the study authors summarized their findings: “In healthy women, chronic ingestion of a ferment milk product with probiotics results in robust alterations in the response of a widely distributed brain network.”

The study did not address why this happened or suggest behavior changes as a result. This research is a first step in acknowledging that the gut environment impacts the brain.

When you realize that bacteria in the gut outnumber cells in the body by 10 to 1, it is not surprising that research on gut bacteria is gaining momentum.

Your personal microbiome is the sum of your gut microbes, their genome and interactions. The Human Microbiome Project sequenced the genetic material of bacteria from 250 healthy adults and discovered more bacterial strains than anticipated. They also determined that each person’s microbiome is unique. The goal of all this research is to understand how to improve health with changes to the microbiome.

It is not jumping the scientific gun to promote a healthy gut as a foundation for better physical and mental health. Good gut bacteria thrive on plant fiber and flourish on diversity. This means eating a variety of vegetables and fruits.

Including the more fibrous part of the plant, like the broccoli stalk or the top of a scallion, in your diet is one good strategy. Fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and miso are rich in probiotics. For more on gut nourishment, visit

Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.

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