There is a certain vulnerability that comes upon our farm in winter. The pastures must surrender their prairie grasses, which in warmer months will catch a man at the waist or hide a calf from view. Reduced to stubble, the land is laid bare to the open sky. The farmers, too, cling to their stubble, prizing its rough protection against the elements. The
silhouettes of trees, stripped of their leaves, puncture heavy winter skies or strain towards the white light of a winter sun pinned on a blue background. On such a landscape, the snow seems a welcome relief, softening sharp edges and blanketing bareness.
Winter is a vulnerable season for the inner landscape of our human bodies as well. Cold temperatures, lack of sunshine, and circulating colds and flus antagonize our immune systems, and the season conspires against our emotional stability, too. “The winter blues” is more than just a common phrase; it is a psychological and physiological reality, and one that can affect many of us who endure the short days and long nights of this season. But the good news is, a perpetual low mood doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of our winter journey… Probiotics to the rescue! Research is showing just how significant good bacteria can be in regulating and improving our moods and mental health.
The relationship between our brains and our guts is no secret by now in the medical community, and it is rapidly gaining awareness among the general population (hurray!). One of the many aspects of this relationship is the role that gut bacteria play in regulating our brain chemistry and neurotransmitters. They accomplish this primarily through the vagus nerve, which runs from the gut directly to the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers of our bodies, carrying information to and from the brain about everything from keeping your heart beating to regulating your sleep. Some neurotransmitters, like the well-known serotonin and dopamine, along with others, help to regulate our mood.
Many neurotransmitters are produced in the gut – but they need a healthy, well-balanced gut microbiome to function optimally. Recent scientific investigations, conducted by Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA, have demonstrated the connection between the particular kinds and numbers of bacteria in subjects’ guts with how their brains function. According to a recent article in NPR, “Mayer found that the connections between brain regions differed depending on which species of bacteria dominated a person’s gut. That suggests that the specific mix of microbes in our guts might help determine what kinds of brains we have — how our brain circuits develop and how they’re wired.” Given that different regions of the brain are responsible for different emotions and aspects of mood regulation, the connections between those regions (which Mayer’s study shows to be influenced by gut bacteria) are pretty important. Studies conducted on mice at McMaster University in Ontario have shown that significant changes in gut bacterial composition cause significant differences in mood-related behaviors. The study, conducted by Stephen Collins, swapped the gut bacteria of “anxious” mice and “fearless” mice and found that the exchange resulted in both groups displaying the traits of the other. Isn’t that amazing? Put simply, as John Cryan, neuroscience professor at Ireland’s University College Cork, does: “Your state of mind might be dependent on your state of gut.”
So what does this have to do with resisting the winter blues? We know that guts with more bad bacteria than good bacteria (a state known as dysbiosis) interfere with the normal functioning of neurotransmitters, the brain, and, consequently, mood. Conversely, a healthy microbiome with a more optimal balance of good bacteria to bad can support optimal brain functioning. As an example, a 2011 study, as reported in The Atlantic, evidenced improvements in people struggling with depression and anxiety when they took a combination of two probiotic strains (Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum) for a month. This is wonderful news, both for seasonally-affected mood problems as well as those that happen year-round.
But those of us who believe in the goodness and power of real food (which we at Traders Point Creamery most certainly do) uphold the “food as medicine” philosophy that prioritizes obtaining nutrients from real food, rather than supplements, whenever possible. Wouldn’t you rather eat a cup of yogurt or a helping of sauerkraut than pop a pill? How fortunate, since fermented foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, are rich food sources of probiotics. Dr. Mayer, of the UCLA study cited above, conducted another study on the effects of probiotics on the brain. Participants – all women, and all healthy – were given yogurt twice a day for four weeks. The results revealed “subtle signs that the brain circuits involved in anxiety were less reactive” [source] Other promising changes in the parts of the brain that process emotion were noted. According to the report, the yogurt contained the strains: Bifidobacterium animalis subsp Lactis, Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, and Lactococcus lactis subsp Lactis – some of which are also present in the yogurt our creamery produces! Without being able to access the full report, we don’t know more details about the kind or quality of yogurt they used, but we would hazard a guess that it probably wasn’t 100% grassfed. So the lovely news is that consuming our yogurt, especially during the winter, not only gains you its probiotics benefits but also the synergistic effect of its other nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin D, CLA) working in tandem with the probiotics (incidentally, a number of these other nutrients happen to be great for supporting mood and gut health as well!).
So this winter, let’s give our guts a little love. Make a smoothie, drizzle some yogurt over your pancakes, create a parfait, and enjoy a number of other fermented probiotic-rich foods. Working in these foods as often as you can can definitely add up over the course of days and weeks. As you help your digestive system flourish, your brain and your mood will cooperate. Less of the winter blues means more room to embrace the beauty and uniqueness of this season. After all, it only comes once a year…