Have you ever felt nauseous moments before you had to deliver a speech? Or maybe you've experienced a sharp stomachache after receiving some bad news? There is a reason why these occurrences are so common. The gut and the brain are connected, and this link has been studied by doctors for years. In fact, numerous recent studies suggest that probiotics can ease depression symptoms in some people.
While this research shows promising results, a larger-scale clinical trial is still needed to determine whether or not these effects are long-term. Ultimately, microbiologists predict that a type of probiotic therapy called ‘psychobiotics’ will become available in the future. Currently, you may incorporate probiotics in your diet or obtain them through supplements. Here is what scientists know about the potential of probiotics as a treatment for mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Theories regarding the effect of gut-health on mental health go back a long way. In the late 19th century, doctors argued that ‘melancholia’, a then-common term for depression, arose from an overgrowth of intestinal microbes. But physicians at the time understood little about the way those microbes actually operated.
A century later, medicine was finally able to verify this theory. Data from the genome sequencing of gut bacteria done in the 2000s revealed that microbes perform an array of important tasks in the body. As it turns out, the human gut is a host to an enormous amount of bacteria and other microbes - more than 100 trillion, to be precise. These are known as the gut microbiome.
Many of these bacteria help build molecules that let you digest food, they keep harmful microbes at bay, and they can even feel your emotions. In fact, the bacteria in your gut are responsible for producing about 90% of the serotonin in your body, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ because it plays a crucial role in regulating one's mood.
In 2009, microbiologist John Cryan of Ireland’s University College Cork found that rats stressed from birth later showed signs of both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and mood disturbance. These findings were in tune with doctors’ previous observations that many patients with digestive symptoms also had mental health issues, and vice versa.
When researchers at Cryan’s lab sampled and sequenced the gut bacteria from stressed rats, they came to a surprising conclusion: stressed animals — those more prone to mental health issues — had a less diverse assortment of gut microbes, or microbiome, than their more healthy counterparts. In the following decade, more labs started reporting that gut bacteria indeed produce a variety of compounds and acids that can influence the mind both positively and negatively.
Rather than passing from the gut to the brain via the bloodstream, some of these chemicals influence the brain through intermediate channels, like the central nervous system, namely the vagus nerve, which functions as a communication route between the brain, the gut, and other organ systems in the human body. This connection is called the gut-brain axis (GBA).
Now that we understand how the gastronomical tract and the brain are connected, it’s easy to see why scientists think that probiotic-based treatments could be potentially beneficial for those suffering from depression. As we mentioned, existing research on the topic is largely promising, but many of the studies are very small. This makes it hard to draw distinctive conclusions on just how effective probiotics are.
Related: 5 Foods That Fight Depression & Boost Mental Health
In a small 2016 study, people with major depression took a probiotic supplement containing three bacteria strains for eight weeks. At the end of the study, most had lower scores on the Beck Depression Inventory, a common method of evaluating depression symptoms. A separate study from 2017 even suggested that a diet higher in beneficial bacteria can banish depression in more than a third of people.
The authors of each of these studies generally agree that full-scale clinical trials are needed to understand how probiotics boost mental well-being and how they can be utilized as a regulated mental-health treatment.
One issue is that probiotics aren’t identical. Certain types of bacteria will have more profound effects on the brain than others, and there is no ‘magic strain’ that works for everyone.
Until there is an official probiotic treatment, probiotics can be obtained through your diet or supplements. If you’re considering trying probiotic supplements for depression, it’s highly recommended that you talk to your healthcare provider first. Probiotics are considered safe to use, but it’s generally a good idea to get professional advice before trying any new supplement or medication.
Foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir are known to naturally contain bacterial strains tied to anti-depressive effects. To learn about more foods that contain probiotics, check out our previous article 7 Probiotics that Boost Your Health, Besides Yogurt.
If you decide to take a supplement, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for dosage. If you experience stomach pain, persistent gas, bloating, or other gastrointestinal distress, it’s a good idea to stop using the probiotic and talk to your doctor before trying it again.
It is important to stress that while probiotics may be a helpful addition, they are not a replacement for therapy, medication, or other treatments recommended by your doctor. They are part of the treatment and not a standalone cure.
The bottom line is that probiotics are a promising potential treatment for depression and other mental health conditions. At the same time, more extensive research to confirm its efficacy. However, there is no harm in trying to take probiotics. It could prove beneficial for both your mood and gut health!
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