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The brain-gut connection: Are probiotics worth the hype?

'It also plays a really large role in the health of our minds, how we perceive stressful situations, how we sleep, how clearly can we think,' expert says.

MAINE, USA — Have you ever felt "hangry," got butterflies when you were nervous or had an intuitive feeling about something? Experts say those signals are coming from your gut or “second brain.” This new knowledge has spurred a multi-billion dollar probiotic industry.

Probiotics are live bacteria considered to be good for your gut, and they come in many forms including yogurt, certain drinks, vitamins, supplements, and much more.  A recent report by GlobeNewswire says the probiotic industry is worth around $50 billion and is expected to reach approximately $75 billion in five years. So, do probiotics really make a difference in your gut health? 

Registered nutritionist, Kylie Fagnano, who runs a virtual practice, Strata Nutrition, based out of Portland, says, "There is no denying that there is a brain-gut connection and that each play a role in one another.” However, the nutritionist says, improving your gut health takes more than just popping a capsule or jumping on the probiotic bandwagon. "The point is, if you can help your body do what it already knows how to do, perhaps taking a probiotic is a good idea," says Fagnano, who recommends people focus on improving health by boosting their intake of fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. She says those foods help sustain the good bacteria in the gut.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Super Healthy Probiotic Foods.

According to Fagnano, about 70% of the immune system resides in the gut and if the bacteria that live there are too high or too low it's going to cause many health problems. “It also plays a really large role in the health of our minds, how we perceive stressful situations, how we can sleep, how clearly can we think, how imaginative we can be, these things are deeply connected,” Fagnano added.  "The connection between the brain and the gut is quite strong."

A study led by the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, Dr. Jay Pasricha, reveals the gut communicates back and forth with the brain. “Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system that trigger mood changes,” says Pasricha.

Scientists at John Hopkins University say this connection between your brain and your gut is creating new ways of understating how digestion affects our mood and overall health. 

Fagnano, who suffers from Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid gland, says she's not opposed to taking probiotics, but she just wants people to take full control of their health. She says the body knows how to heal itself, you just need to take out the things that are hurting it, like some foods, toxins, and stress, and give it what it needs. The nutritionist says taking control of your health is powerful, but it requires a lot of work and mindfulness.