Is good bacteria really good for you after all?


Woman eating yogurt

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For years, the makers of certain prepackaged foods have touted the idea of “good bacteria” that can assist in the well-being, both physical and mental, of the consumer. Advertisements have pointed to the idea of “natural balance” behind such food science — consuming “good bacteria” means a healthy system, which means a healthy brain and body, right? Well, not necessarily.

Science itself has always been skeptical about such claims. Though it’s true that past data has shown apparent statistical correlations between the makeup of intestinal bacteria and certain conditions, there has been no research into an actual microbial relationship between brain and body that has proved conclusive. Until very recently, that is.


Old fables, new findings

Now there may finally be evidence of a link between bacteria in the gut — the microbiome — and mental health. A study at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has produced results that suggest that both autism and depression may be affected by microbiome. Dr. Sarkis Mazmanian, who led the CalTech team, is currently studying potential probiotic therapies for various conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and autism.

One of the keys, he says, is the vagus nerve — the link between the brain and the digestive tract. A study in 2013 using mice found that those exhibiting symptoms of autism — including stress, antisocial behavior and gastrointestinal issues — had less of a particular bacterium in their digestive tract than would normally be expected. When the scientists topped up the mice with these bacteria, the symptoms were reversed. The results hint at the idea that people suffering with specific neurological problems could be treated with drugs and diets that target their digestive rather than their neurological system.

It should be made abundantly clear, however, that these are very early results. Mazmanian himself says that hopes of a full understanding any time soon of the link between brain and gut are “minimal to say the least.” Keep eating that yogurt, by all means, but don’t hold out too many hopes for it lifting any gray clouds.


A great deal to digest

So the findings may not be an immediate panacea but they are a slap in the face to those scientist naysayers, no? Well, no. The results are promising if not conclusive. But even if the hope offered by advertisers were one day to be fully realized, it wouldn’t make their pronouncements any more acceptable because the claims were based on people’s hope that something might be true, not any proven facts that it actually is.

Science has always been skeptical about certain ideas because that is precisely the nature of science — to question all ideas, especially those that have little or no basis in validated research and experiment. Did scientists get it wrong? Maybe. But it’s much more accurate to yogurt with berries say that those who invest time, money and energy in real research do so in an honest attempt to understand the material world. They use systems of research that eliminate bias. Their findings are peer-reviewed and questioned.

Scientists look hard to understand why they are wrong — and when they publish what they think is right, other scientists look even harder. It is only by this process that progress is made and something close to objective knowledge is acquired. Science doesn’t have all the answers. Nor should it be taken as read that it believes it does. Yet, more importantly, science, by its very nature, doesn’t accept things on faith. It doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear to get you to hand over your money. It looks at reality, it cites its sources and it gets its hands dirty.

Labeling foods as “good” and “bad,” like the bacteria in “probiotic” food, is unhelpful and gives us a black-and-white version of reality that barely exists in the real world. Yes, there are things that your body needs and there are things that are harmful to it. But suggesting that there are magical cure-alls out there, each of which is a one-size-fits-all answer to our problems is, at best, misleading and, at worst, downright dishonest.

The recent phenomenon of “superfoods” is another example of this. Cancer Research UK argues that “the term ‘superfood’ is really just a marketing tool, with little scientific basis to it.” The human body, they say, is complex and should not be looked at in terms of “magic bullets.” So-called superfoods, says the charity, “can certainly play a role but they are unlikely to give you added health benefits over and above what you would get from eating a varied and healthy diet.” The same goes for “good bacteria.” It may be that, at some point, evidence emerges to support the seemingly groundless claims of advertisers — Dr. Mazmanian’s research certainly gives us a tantalizing glimpse — but that doesn’t mean we should accept the “evidence” of miraculous cures that appear with alarming regularity on talk shows, blogs and advertising billboards.

The takeaway from this should not be that science itself is an ever-shifting set of parameters unwilling to settle on a “truth” — one that denies claims only to be proved wrong. It should be that we can, nay must, accept that a skeptical approach is the only way to see through the torrent of information — and misinformation — that pours into our lives every day. A balanced diet is the best policy for one’s brain and body — a balanced outlook is just as healthy for our minds.