Anxiety, Depression and the Surprising Role of Gut Bacteria

Mounting evidence is pointing to a powerful connection between the gut and the human brain, with the latest research coming from neurobiologists at Oxford University. Their findings are compelling and have promise for the management and future direction for treatments of depression and anxiety.

Inside the human body are trillions of microbes, collectively knows as the microbiome. When taken together, they are estimated to weigh about twice the weight of the average human brain. Think about that.

They live in the gut and their job is to digest food, synthesize vitamins and fight infection. What we are discovering is that their reach extends far beyond the gut, and all the way to the brain.

Studies over the last decade have identified the role of gut microbiome in maintaining certain brain functions such as mood, emotion and appetite. Research is increasingly pointing to the role it plays in psychiatric and neurological disorders such as anxiety, depression and autism. 

Researchers at the University of Oxford have found that taking probiotics has an effect on anxiety and depression by influencing the neuroendocrine stress response and by altering the way people process emotional information. 


The Study – What They Did

45 women between the ages of 18 to 45 took either a prebiotic or a placebo every day for three weeks.

(Probiotics consist of strains of good bacteria. They use prebiotics – carbohydrates they break down for nourishment – to multiply.)

At the end of the three weeks, the participants performed a number of tests involving positive and negative words, to measure how they processed emotional information. 

What They Found

Those who took the prebiotic paid less attention to negative information and more attention to positive information compared with those who took the placebo.

This effect is similar to that facilitated by antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

The prebiotic group also had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) compared with the placebo group. High cortisol levels have been linked with anxiety and depression.


 Adding to the promise of the findings is research out of France that found that people who took probiotics for 30 days had reduced levels of somatisation (physical symptoms such as pain and tightness that are brought on by psychological distress), depression, anger-hostility and anxiety.

Early evidence for a gut-brain connection came from a study led by Dr Kirsten Tillisch of UCLA’s School of Medicine.

In their study, women who ate probiotic yoghurt (containing containing probiotic strains such as Bifidobacterium animalis, Streptococcus thermophiles, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus) twice a day for a month showed alterations in brain function, particularly in the brain’s response to the environment.

This was compared to women who ate a dairy product without any living bacteria and another group who ate no dairy products.

Brain scans revealed that those who took the probiotics had reduced activity in the area of the  brain involved in processing emotions.

Tillisch explains, ‘When we consider the implications of the work, the old sayings, ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘gut feelings’ take on new meaning.’

‘Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with the gut.

Though probiotic cocktails aren’t likely to replace conventional treatments any time soon, there is compelling evidence to suggest great potential in using them as part of a treatment or management plan for anxiety or depression. 

39 Comments

Hlan

So, I have anxiety disorder, depression, IBS, acid reflux, gerd and I recently had thyroid cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes, so I had to have radiation treatment. Before they found the cancer, I had to pass 16 kidney stones for them to realize I was producing too much calcium. I have recently been seeing a nephrologist for kidney failure, bc since my surgeries, my remaining 2 parathyroids have started to heal & work again, so the calcium they’ve been producing on top of the calcium I’ve been taking was causing my kidneys to shut down. Long story short… I have had every test done under the sun, bc I just don’t feel good, my stomach is always in disarray. I have currently looked into a homeopathic treatment & she took me off of several of the meds the doctors had me on, & had me start drinking aquafloura for my stomach. Which has helped some. I just need some relief. This article is some help, but still not resolution.

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Stephanie

Hi, I had gerd, gastritis, ibs/depression & started taking a good quality organic tumeric supplement & did Accupuncture initially 3 times a week to reduce as symptoms got less. These reduce inflamation in the body, & activate PNS instead of being in fight or flight,then including a balanced diet & pre/pro/postbiotics is also important. As per great article.
Many of us are also Magnesium deficient, Mg is essential in over 300 chemical reactions in the body.
Taking a supplement of that too.
After aprox 8-12mths I’ve introduced most foods back(except lactose milk) & have very limited if any symptoms.

Naturally activating/improving your vagal tone may help too; google how to naturally improve vagal tone.
Good luck:)

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Michelle

This article is great! I have had anxiety and chronic fatigue since my early teens. Dr’s couldn’t figure out why, so basically I just needed to learn to live with it. a few months ago I was introduced to Plexus to try help with my energy. And it has! But it also really helped with my anxiety! I couldn’t believe it! I started researching why, and this is exactly it! Gut healing! It includes fantastic pre and probiotic supplements along with an all natural detoxer, including magnesium and vit C! check it out! Plexus worldwide.com! If you do, and want to know more, please email me I would love to share and help you!

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Jane

I’ve been brewing kombucha tea and making my own homemade yogurt and kimchi for a few months now – I just need my daughter to actually believe the science stuff and start to eat and drink this stuff.
I’m showing her this article because right now, I think she thinks I’m making it up!

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J

People have been using the GAPS diet (“Gut and Psychology Syndrome”) for better mental health with great success! Our family used it to fix some food intolerances. Check it out!! Gut flora (bacteria, yeast, etc.) has a huge influence on how our brains function.

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Karen Young

Yes you’re absolutely right. The way to sustain probiotics is with probiotics. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Sources of probiotics include whole grains, peas, avocado and apple cider vinegar.

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Debi

When I read this article a while back (after binge-reading your articles in an effort to help my then 14 yr old!) I figured it couldnt hurt, so bought probiotics. Added them to her routine of Magnesium 400 mg (was recommended by her counselor) hoping it would give her a little boost and I have to say, it has changed her entire situation!!! I am now an avid fan of probiotics in teens with anxiety!! She now uses ALL the things in her “tool box” to keep her anxiety at bay (that I found on your website, like mindfulness, SmilingMind, etc!!) and is completely blowing our minds with her bravery! She is now on the drama team at church, is in student leadership, a team leader at youth camps, and does things (tubing down a river!) that she would have NEVER done before. I have to say, I can point clearly to your website for the information to help in redirecting her anxiety. Tummy aches (were daily) are now maybe once a month, and last an hour at most!!) I told you in a comment years ago when you first got on facebook that you should charge for this, I would pay….. a lot! It would be worth EVERY PENNY for our family! Bless you, Karen. You are simply amazing and I am one grateful Mama for your knowledge!!

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Tracie in Kansas

Gut health equates to brain health. Too bad so many mainstream doctors don’t understand…

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Palwasha

Spot on
When ever i take med for gut problems IBS they dont work whenever i take them with meds for depresion they do magic
My pains my moods i mean everythng seems better when i take these two toghtr
So if someone has IBS n their med not workin ask ur doc if he can add mild anti depressants with it n thn c in a week

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Fraser

The bacteria in our guts can vary tremendously from one person to another – my intuition is that what works for one person will not necessarily work for another, and treatment would depend on whether or not there are important bacteria which can only be obtained from the gut of another human being. There has been some interesting work in this field recently and I wonder if it is possible to look at the influence of probiotics in isolation without considering a person’s initial gut flora to start with?

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Mary Kelly

I healed my depression, anxiety, PTSD and IBS by following a highly probiotic diet called GAPS. Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride needs to get some credit: she has been promoting the gut brain connection for over 20 years, and has been healing kids with behavioral disorders by the thousands. The key for us was not just probiotics off the shelf but probiotics with huge variety (more than 6 strains).
So pleased to see this information getting some research to confirm what clinical studies have been saying for years (and have been derided for for years).

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Therese

Yes! Just picked up a book from Dr Campbell-McBride about GAPS diet from my mum, who has just been on the diet for a few weeks now. After decades of problems with her digestion/bowels, suspected IBS & a recent discovery that she carries a gene for coeliac disease (?), she is now feeling SO much better, both physically & mentally. She also suffered anxiety & mild depression over the years. The diet has been a big adjustment though, not easy, but worth it…My teenage daughter is on meds now for anxiety & depression and, although I am very doubtful that she will consider the diet in its entirety, I am hoping she might take a probiotic supplement. My mum had been recommending this for a long time, so good to hear others have benefited (or why they haven’t)

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Trish

Hi there
Interesting stuff, thank you.
My husband is allergic to penicillin, so can’t eat probiotic yoghurt. Any suggestions re alternatives which could achieve the same effect with regard to depression?

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Hey Sigmund

Trish I would really encourage you to speak with a naturopath, doctor or pharmacist. They should be able to set you on track with this and hopefully help you to find something for your husband that will support his gut health without triggering any negative side effects.

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Lara

A fantastic article…thank you for posting! Prebiotics and probiotics are saving me from years of anxiety and depression. Note that many probiotics aren’t strong enough and won’t colonise in the gut, especially if you suffer from leaky gut (which most of us do). To heal leaky gut in as little as 2 months, PLEASE research ‘bovine colostrum’ on the Net. It also serves as the best prebiotic out there. (The brand is vital. Two of the best are Immune Tree and Synertek.) Nothing has every made such a difference to my health – and anxiety/depression – as colostrum. Hope and blessings.

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Josie

Oh! I had heard of bovine colostrum before but had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

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Cherie

I have recently started drinking kombucha and kefir amazing probiotics in them. I am diagnosed bipolar 2 disorder and have noticed an emense change in how i feel better than the anti depressant medication!!

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Britt

I also have had anxiety and gut issues (IBS C ) for most of my life. I am now paleo AIP and that has helped but not solved it. I tried probiotics (biokult) for two months and noticed no difference. I then switched to prescript assist and they made me feel really weird and more anxious. Any ideas ? What would be considered a mild probiotic to help me ? Biokult didn’t work. I’m a little lost. Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

I would really suggest working closely with a naturopath. There are so many different bacteria in the gut and it may depend on the type of probiotic you use. It is also important to introduce the change slowly. When probiotics kill of pathogens, they release toxins. It is these toxins that are likely to be already contributing to the symptoms. If probiotics are introduced too much too soon, the release of toxins will increase suddenly and may potentially lead to to a worsening of the symptoms. This may have been why you felt worse when you switched. Don’t give up though – there is no one size fits all for this, which is why a naturopath may be the way to go.

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Kelly

I started using a great probiotic about a year ago and have noticed amazing results without any weird side effects. I wasn’t even really aware of the benefits of probiotics until then but I don’t go a day without it now. I’d love to share more with you if you’re interested.

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Marielle

I have struggle with gut(lack of urge to go) and anxiety for decades. With no relief. Tried so many things with no luck. Its like my brain in times of anxiety just turns my digestion off and then more anxiety is created by not going. Its this horrible vicious cycle with no relief. Tried probiotics but caused me such pain. Any thoughts/suggestions. Been to western Dr(s) and naturopath. Always address diet but no luck as eat clean and exercise daily.

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Hey Sigmund

Marielle what you are describing about your your anxiety and digestive issues is not unusual. With probiotics is it important not to have a massive dose too quickly as it can make symptoms worse. This is because when probiotics kill the pathogens in your gut, the pathogens release toxins. It is possibly these toxins that are causing your symptoms, and when there is a surge of them they will initially make your symptoms worse. It is impossible for me to say with any certainty, but it might be one track to investigate if other possible causes have been investigated and have lead nowhere. I would suggest speaking to another naturopath or doctor who can discuss other options or who can guide you through a more gentle introduction of probiotics.

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Natalie

Marielle, something else to consider. Some probiotic blends contain beneficial yeasts (and other organisms), like saccharomyces boulardii, that you don’t find in a lot of supplements. For people with yeast sensitivity like myself ingesting s. boulardii can raise inflammation in the body due to an immune response to the yeast (or other offending organisms/ingredients). Raised levels of inflammation can affect your mood negatively. Point being, if you are sensitive to something in your probiotic blend, it can make you feel worse. It’s not necessarily that the probiotics are bad or don’t work for you, but you may need to try a different one. For the record, Prescript Assist has several saccharomyces organisms in it as well as many other soil-based organisms that are different from the “usual” ones you would find in most supplements. It seems to work very well for some people, and not so well for others. I would guess this is probably due to sensitivities which would vary from person to person. These things can be determined through testing. Good luck!

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Natalie

Sorry, my last comment was directed at Britt, below. My mistake. Think I need to get some coffee in me.

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Charles brown

I have struggled with stomach problems and anxiety for over 25 years. I started probiotics about two months ago and it has made a world of difference in my thought pattern, anxiety, mood and gut distress. I have always said that all my issues started in my gut and sure enough the research is proving me right. Now if we can only get the Doctors on board with this new research discovery.

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Hey Sigmund

Intuition is pretty amazing isn’t it. I’m pleased you’re finally finding some relief. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important and you never know who will be helping.

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Donna

I have been fighting with PTSD, depression and anxiety most of my life I take 4 different medications for it. This sounds to good to be true.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s certainly not a quick fix but there is a lot of research looking at the connection. Have a chat to your doctor about it, and remember that if you’re on medication it’s always important not to stop taking it without medical supervision.

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Linda

You use both probiotics and prebiotics – is this a typo, or are they two different things? Where would a person find either or both of these, and is it okay to just take/eat them yourself or does a doctor need to be consulted?

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heysigmund

Prebiotics are the food for probiotics (I know – it took me a bit to get my head around it!) I just get them from my pharmacy in the supplements section. The first time I bought them, I spoke to the pharmacist who was very well-informed about the research, so hopefully other pharmacists will be too. Hope that helps.

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Rachael

But you need a good quality Pro biotic supplement. Some companies sell probiotics that aren’t live, they’re dead. There’s a good Stuff You Should Know podcast about this.

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Marlene Blake

Really need the knowledge to help understand how my daughter feels i am a great listener but i never have the answers to help her she was diagnosed last year. All of her communication now is about her anxiety and depression it has control of all of us right now we don’t know how to help her switch that feeling off.

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heysigmund

It can be so hard to know what to say and the truth is there is no ‘right thing’.Is your daughter seeing a counsellor? Did you have a look under the depression tab – there are other articles there that might help. You’ll find it under ‘Being Human’, then ‘Depression’. Exercise has been found to have the same effect on the brain as antidepressants and it’s also important for anxiety – it’s a natural end to the fight or flight response and is protective as well. If she’s depressed it’s likely that she won’t feel like going but if you can go with her for a walk that would be so good for her. Here is the link to the article just in case you haven’t read it yet https://www.heysigmund.com/fighting-depression/ . It really does make a difference. You’re doing the right thing just by being there.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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