Episode 162

Han Solo joked in Return of the Jedi that Chewbacca was “always thinking with his stomach.”  In the years since 1983, science has shown this to be truer than we ever suspected.  The bacterial passengers in our gut play an incredibly powerful role in modulating our moods and health.

This week, Jesse’s joined by science writer Scott Anderson to discuss bacteria that improve your mood, fecal transplants, and why you should eat more beans.

The Bacteria that Improve Your Mood

Ever heard of psychobiotics?  The idea is that you can treat mental health via the gut, and it’s actually legit.  In some cases, certain strains of bacteria have treated depression better than traditional antidepressants.

Editor’s note:  for now, the most rigorous experiments have involved mice and the mouse version of depression.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though, as 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced in the gut (along with other neurotransmitters).

Your gut is like a second brain:  it produces neurotransmitters, it has as many nerves as your spinal cord, and it can regulate your mood.  In fact, depression is comorbid with many diseases of the gut, like Crohn’s Disease.  On the flip side, people who regularly eat yogurt are happier than those who don’t.

Building a Better Gut

So how can you optimize your own gut for the best mood and health possible?  Although bacteria are all around us, many of the beneficial gut bacteria are species that are only found in human guts.

You start building your gut bacteria as an infant:  your mother’s milk is possibly the most important route for getting the right bacteria into your gut.  Babies who weren’t breastfed can have troubles with their guts.

But breastfeeding isn’t the only opportunity for getting bacteria.  You’ll get more from other people (French kissing has health benefits!) and food.

You can help things along by taking prebiotics.  Rather than pills, look to your foods for these good bacteria.  Fermented foods are great and yogurt in particular provides fatty acids that are very helpful.  Look for foods that are rich in fructooligosaccharide and galactooligosaccharide.

What you should not do is take antibiotics willy-nilly.  Of course, there are some serious infections that do require them, but remember that every time you take antibiotics, you’re killing off a few species of bacteria in your gut.  Unless you’re aware and actively work to replace them, the odds of you getting them back are really low.

In cases of a really off whack gut, the treatment is a fecal transplant.  Yes, it sounds gross — but it works!  There are reports of people suffering from depression feeling better just minutes after getting a transplant.  But you want to make sure you’re getting poop from a healthy gut.  There are anecdotes* of people getting fecal transplants from an obese person and becoming obese themselves.

*These are anecdotal only, and not confirmed.

PS:  Our Brain Breakfast doesn’t have any prebiotics, but it will make you happy.

Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.
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