Probiotics are often associated with digestive health. However, new research suggests that they may have a surprising link to mental health. Recent studies have found that consuming probiotics can have a significant impact on reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
The Gut-Brain Connection
First, it’s important to understand the link between the gut and the brain. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it contains its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is responsible for controlling digestion. The ENS works in conjunction with the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, through the vagus nerve. This nerve connects the brain to the gut and allows for communication between the two.
Research has found that the gut-brain connection is bidirectional, meaning that the health of one affects the health of the other. For example, stress and anxiety can lead to digestive issues, and digestive issues can lead to stress and anxiety.
Effects of Probiotics on Mental Health
Probiotics are live microorganisms that help maintain the natural balance of bacteria in the gut. They are found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, as well as in supplement form.
Studies have found that consuming probiotics can improve symptoms of various mental health disorders:
A 2017 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that participants who consumed a probiotic supplement for four weeks experienced a significant decrease in symptoms of anxiety compared to those who took a placebo. Another study published in the Journal of Functional Foods found that consuming a yogurt containing probiotics for four weeks reduced activity in the areas of the brain associated with processing emotion in response to stress.
A 2018 systematic review of studies published in the journal Annals of General Psychiatry found that consuming probiotics can have anti-inflammatory effects, which may play a role in reducing symptoms of depression. The review also found that probiotics may increase levels of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which are implicated in depression.
A 2018 study published in the journal Bipolar Disorders found that participants with bipolar disorder who consumed a probiotic supplement for 24 weeks experienced a significant decrease in symptoms of mania compared to those who took a placebo.
How Probiotics Work
The exact mechanisms by which probiotics affect mental health are still being studied. However, there are several theories:
As mentioned earlier, the gut and brain are connected through the vagus nerve. Probiotics may improve communication between the gut and brain, leading to improved mental health.
Probiotics may stimulate the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in regulating mood.
Inflammation has been linked to various mental health disorders. Probiotics may reduce inflammation in the gut, leading to reduced inflammation in other parts of the body, including the brain.
The link between probiotics and mental health is a promising area of research. While more studies are needed to fully understand the mechanisms by which probiotics affect mental health, the evidence so far suggests that they can be a safe and effective addition to traditional psychiatric treatment. If you’re interested in incorporating probiotics into your diet, talk to your healthcare provider to determine the best option for you.