In recent years, we have become privy to a host of research showing that the friendly bacteria living in our gut (also known as probiotics) are incredibly good for us -- from regulating inflammation and immunity to maintaining mental health.
With the microbiome -- or each individual's collection of bacteria -- being dubbed the next big frontier in medicine, this field of research is only set to grow.
Which brings us to a new study coming out of the University of New South Wales. A team of researchers have found probiotics may be helpful in protecting our youngest from the generational effects of another huge societal issue: stress.
Individuals who are exposed to stress early in life end up being more vulnerable, and there's a higher incidence of stress-related disorders in those individuals.
Let us backtrack a few steps.
What do you mean by generational stress?
As the average age of Australians managing psychological disorders lowers, it is arguably more important than ever to be identifying early risk factors -- and how they manifest.
Co-lead study author and PhD student Caitlin Cowan believes early life stressors are a risk factor.
"We know that individuals who are exposed to stress early in life end up being more vulnerable and there's a higher incidence of stress-related disorders in those individuals," Cowan told The Huffington Post Australia.
"While there have been a few studies on generational stress, most of them have looked at what happens in adulthood. This is the first to look at early life risk factors."
What were the findings?
Cowan and her team have found that a father's stress levels can negatively affect his offspring's learning and memory abilities.
In the study, infant male rats were exposed to stressful periods of maternal separation as an example of an early-life stressor. After the rats reproduced, their offspring had stronger memories of fear as infants.
We are trying to find things that we are able to catch earlier on.
"Looking at memory, in particular, during early life was interesting because most young kids and young animals tend to forget fearful things quickly," Cowan said. "Those offspring of stressed fathers seemed to remember things for a lot longer and that puts them in a vulnerable position in terms of predisposition towards stress-related psychological disorders.
"We are trying to find things that we are able to catch earlier on."
How can probiotics help?
The study also found that probiotics were shown to reverse these generational stress effects.
A probiotic composed of 95 percent 'Lactobacillus rhamnosus' and five percent 'Lactobacillus helveticus' was given to both the infant rats (as an active treatment) and to the fathers (as a preventative treatment before conception).
"What we found was that the stress hormone level experienced during stressful periods were actually lower when they had exposure to the probiotic. So even though they are going through the same stress, they are not having the same hormonal response to that stress," Cowan said.
"That happened regardless of whether we gave the probiotic to the stressed father or their offspring."
What does this mean moving forward?
According to Cowan, the findings pave the way for further clinical research into the effectiveness of using probiotics for intervention into stress-related psychological disorders.
"We are in the very early stages, but it shows how broad the applications of this could be," Cowan said.
"Now that we are understanding much more about the gut-brain links and how gastrointestinal and psychological disorders overlap, it will be interesting to see whether we can see these effects in a clinical setting."
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