If you struggle with depression or mood instability, you may have been told the problem is a chemical imbalance. That is to say, many of us know the neurochemistry in our brains affects our mood. Certain neurotransmitters influence mood and when these are out of balance we can experience depression. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most closely linked to depression in the current conventional understanding of depression. Norepinephrine and dopamine are also neurotransmitters that play a role in mental health. In reality we still understand little about depression and how it works and it may take a few more decades of research to have a clearer understanding of how depression works.
What you may not know is that depression is not just in your head. In fact, your gut also plays a role in your mood. Something called the Gut-Brain Axis allows for biochemical signals that go between the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the central nervous system (CNS). This means that the health of your gut can also influence your brain and mental health.
Recently, researchers have been especially curious about how probiotics can be used to increase gut health and in turn, help reduce depression. Learn more about how your gut health may be affecting your mood and how you might improve it with probiotics:
What is the Gut-Brain Axis?
The Gut-Brain Axis includes more than just the GI tract and CNS, it also includes the Neuroendocrine and Neuroimmune systems, as well as Gut MicroBiota. The last of these, the Microbiota includes all of the bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi, and viruses found in the gut. It is sometimes called gut flora and it plays an important role in our health.
Gut microbes collect energy from the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates and help with absorption of some fatty acids. They also help our bodies synthesize Vitamin B and Vitamin K. Gut flora also plays a role in producing hormones. An imbalance of gut flora can contribute to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.
Much of the early research on gut flora and the Gut-Brain Axis was conducted with animals. Then researchers began looking at gut flora in humans. Research has shown that people with mood disorders, tend to have GI problems. Some studies showed that people with mental health conditions, such as depression, do have different composition of their gut flora.
What does research say about probiotics?
Scientists began to suspect that by supporting gut health, probiotics could help people with depression. A recent study examined much of the research conducted on probiotics and mood. The researchers found that across ten different studies, the results generally supported the use of probiotics for reducing symptoms of depression.
Research has shown that probiotic treatment helps immune response, reduces inflammation, and increases levels of tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin). These studies use self-report measures such as the Beck Depression Inventory, so people can report their depressive symptoms. Many studies found that people reported lower scores on the Beck Depression Inventory after using probiotics.
The research studies have not yet clearly defined which specific probiotics and what doses may be most helpful for depression. Additionally, although research is showing that the introduction of probiotics seems to help people with depression, the exact mechanisms remains to be clarified.
How might probiotics help with depression?
The Enteric Nervous System is part of the Gut-Brain Axis and this includes neurons that carry information through your body. This system uses neurotransmitters for communication. In fact, more than 90% of the body’s Serotonin is in the gut and remember this neurotransmitter plays a key role in depression. In addition, approximately 50% of the body’s Dopamine is found in the gut.
It is the interaction between neurotransmitters and the Gut-Brain Axis that can influence depression. We know probiotics help with digestive health, which can balance out key neurotransmitters. In turn, probiotics may reduce depression. Knowing this, you may want to use probiotics to enhance your physical and mental health.
How can you get more probiotics in Your diet?
Historically, our foods naturally provided probiotics because we were consuming them fresh or using fermentation to store them. Unfortunately, today’s mass-production agricultural practices and long-term food preservation methods often strip away naturally occurring probiotics. Some methods even use chemicals or antibiotics that further imbalance our gut flora.
For many of us, a diet consisting of processed, off-the-shelf foods, that lack natural probiotics, will have negative effects on our digestive health. If you want to restore the balance in your Gut-Brain Axis one way to accomplish this is by adding more probiotics to your diet. Basically, you can add fermented and cultured foods to your diet, as well as raw or unpasteurized dairy items.
One item many of us know is rich in probiotics is Yogurt and this is because it is cultured. However, not all yogurt is created equal. For the best benefits, select organic yogurts from grass-fed goat and sheep. Kefir is similar to yogurt but it contains many more probiotics because it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria. You can even make Kefir at home. I myself have maintained a kefir culture for nearly a year but it takes quite a bit of work to keep up with the culture so eventually I gave up.
Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi are also good options to add probiotics to your diet. Both also provide organic acids that support the growth of good bacteria. Kombucha and kvass are two fermented beverages that not only provide probiotics but also help to cleanse your liver. You can also learn to make these items in your own home.
Breaking it all Down
We now have a better understanding of the Gut-Brain Axis and how it can affect mental health, contributing to conditions such as depression. We need a healthy balance of microbes in our gut to keep the system working properly. Research tells us that changes in the composition of gut flora can occur from poor diet or other health conditions and can be restored with a healthy diet and probiotics.
The addition of probiotics to your diet will benefit not just your digestive and general physical health, but your mental health too. As some probiotics are found beneficial for mental health, researchers are calling these Psychobiotics. If you are struggling with depression and want to incorporate probiotics to support your whole-body health and improve your mood, consult with an integrative psychiatrist or functional psychiatrist or a functional medicine doctor who can help you to incorporate these natural treatments into your overall approach to staying healthy.