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How gut bacteria could manipulate your mind

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Are you being controlled by bacteria?

Is bacteria responsible for controlling our mind? New research suggests microbes in our gut could affect what we eat and also our mood.


Could it really be that gut bacteria rule our mind and body? New evidence from a team of researchers that almost seems like science fiction suggests microbes that live in our intestines might be manipulating not only our mood but how much and what type of food we eat.

Not all gut bacteria are good to us

Researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico reviewed studies to come to the conclusion that not all gut bacteria act in our best interest.

In other words, gut bacteria want what they grow best on, sending signals that make us have food cravings that make it difficult to avoid obesity. For instance, some bacteria want sugar while others want fat.

According to senior author Athena Aktipis, PhD, co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer with the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF, bacteria in the gut can sabotage our best intentions for getting the right nutrients. Each group of bacteria has their own agenda.

"Bacteria within the gut are manipulative,” said Carlo Maley, PhD, director of the UCSF Center for Evolution and Cancer and corresponding author on the paper in a press release” “There is a diversity of interests represented in the microbiome, some aligned with our own dietary goals, and others not.”

How bacteria gain mind control

The researchers aren't sure how gut bacteria take over to drive eating and possibly obesity as well as mood but they suspect it might have to do with how the gut microbiome releases signals from molecules linked to the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

Taking charge of your gut could alter mean the difference between feeling good and feeling bad says Maley.

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What we put in our mouth can change gut flora minute by minute, making a difference in our mood and appetite.

What we eat can manipulate us

“Our diets have a huge impact on microbial populations in the gut,” Maley said. “It’s a whole ecosystem, and it’s evolving on the time scale of minutes.”

Athena Aktipis, PhD, co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer with the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCSF who co-authored the study says microbes in the gut can manipulate our behavior by changing neural signals to alter taste, produce toxins to make us feel poorly and even by releasing chemicals that make us feel good.

One study highlighted by the authors found the probiotic Lactobacillus improved mood in humans. In mice, certain strains of bacteria induce anxiety.

The researchers wonder if transplanting certain bacteria in the gut would shed more light. For instance Japanese people have more gut microbes that digest seaweed. Would seaweed digesting enzymes make us crave the green stuff?

"Because microbiota are easily manipulatable by prebiotics, probiotics, antibiotics, fecal transplants, and dietary changes, altering our microbiota offers a tractable approach to otherwise intractable problems of obesity and unhealthy eating," the authors write.

The finding could explain why we get food cravings, how food can change our mood that has been observed in past studies and maybe even explain what contributes to obesity. It may be that gut bacteria are controlling us.


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