Healthy as a mouse.
Seeing the word 'probiotic' on a foodstuff has always raised fears in my mind about what might happen if I consume it when on antibiotics.
Clearly there would be a near certainty of conflict if not outright gastric war. I have been equally concerned about antioxidants. Does no one care about oxidants?
Are there no pro-oxidants to stand up for their rights?
Bearing this in mind, I was greatly encouraged to see a piece of research entitled 'ingestion of Lactobacillus Strain Regulates Emotional Behaviour and Central GABA Receptor Expression in a Mouse Via the Vagus Nerve', just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.
The paper, as I imagine you have guessed from the title, shows that eating a certain probiotic bacterium can influence the behaviour of a mouse. Specifically, the mice fed with the lactobacillus showed fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression than those fed on bacillus-free food.
Not only was their behaviour in potentially stressful situations found to be calmer, but an analysis of their brain chemicals showed lower levels of the hormones that lead to anxiety.
Naturally, I found this intriguing but seeing how 'antioxidant' and 'probiotic' have become almost meaningless buzz-words in some parts of the food industry and included on labels to suggest healthy-giving properties before confirmation by experiment or analysis, I thought I had better delve deeper into this result.
So I rang up the laboratory where the experiments took place and asked to talk to the mouse that had been on the probiotic diet.
"Love your column," the mouse said when I told him who I was. "Use it to line the nest in my cage. Very thermal, I must say."
"Thank you," I replied, "but I was hoping you'd tell me a little about this probiotic diet you've been on."
"I know what you're thinking," the mouse said, "but I don't just eat the stuff because it says 'probiotic' on the label.
"Oh no. I don't fall for that sort of blatant advertising gimmick, but I've found that the lactobacillus rhamnosus bacterium can have a real effect on the signalling chemicals in my brain.
"As you know, gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, is a neurotransmitter that seems to calm down the excitable buzzing that goes on in the brain, increasing one's emotional control and the probiotic bacillus seems to lead to an increase of its amount in the brain."
"But how?" I asked. "When you eat, the food heads for your gut, not your brain."
"Very true," the mouse said, "but the vagus nerve runs directly between the gut and the brain, so that may have something to do with it."
"That's fascinating," I said, "but what do you think it is that is conducted along the vague nerve and how does it have an effect on the brain chemicals? And do you think it might work on humans as well as mice?"
"Oh for goodness' sake," the mouse said, "how on earth should I know? I'm only a laboratory mouse."
I apologised and we left it at that.
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