Psychobiotics sound like mind blowing drugs from the Purple Haze Timothy Leary Haight-Ashbury era, but the only trip involved is a peregrination to better cognitive function.
Psychobiotics are probiotics that specifically deliver mental health benefits such as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, , improving memory, and even lessening neuroticism and social anxiety. Like all probiotics, psychobiotics are living microorganisms — good bacteria — that enter the gut through supplements or by eating certain foods. But unlike the vast majority of probiotics, which benefit digestion and general metabolism, psychobiotic perks are fast-tracked to the central nervous system where they maintain a bidirectional relationship between the gut and brain.
While not likely recommended by conventional medical doctors, many researchers and holistic practitioners are touting psychobiotics as a new frontier in neuroscience and possibly even the next generation of treatment for more advanced mental disorders.
“Psychobiotics are also important for mental health because of how they work through the immune system,” says integrative medicine specialist Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross. “They can modulate the inflammatory response and release pro-inflammatory cytokines that are associated with many psychiatric illnesses including depression.”
Dr. Ted Dinan, a clinical psychiatrist at University College Cork in Ireland, coined the term psychobiotic in 2013. As a key player in the psychobiotics movement, his interest has been in trying to understand how psychobiotic bacteria connect with the brain from the gut.
“I’m interested in the fact that many bacteria are capable of producing some of the most important neurotransmitters in the human brain, like serotonin and GABA,” says Dinan.
Dinan however doesn’t believe bacterial neurotransmitters go directly to the human brain from the gut.
“That would be implausible,” says Dinan. “But I do believe that these bacteria are capable of producing substances (chemicals) that either directly or indirectly impact our brain function through the vagus nerve — which directly connects (the gut) to the brain.”
Proof Is In The Probiotic
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that communicate information throughout our brain and body. The brain uses neurotransmitters to tell the heart to beat, lungs to breathe, and stomach to digest. They can also affect mood, sleep, concentration, and can cause adverse symptoms when they are out of balance. Stress, poor diet, neurotoxins, genetic predisposition, and certain pharmaceuticals can cause these levels to be out of optimal range.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter necessary for stable mood and to balance any excessive excitatory neurotransmitters (stress). It regulates many processes such as sleep cycle, pain control, appropriate digestion, and immune system function. One bacteria, Bifidobacterium infantis, has been shown to positively alter levels of serotonin much like antidepressants such as Prozac.
Another neurotransmitter, GABA, has long been associated with depression. Lack of GABA in the brain may bring on negative thoughts linked with depression. Researchers have identified gut microbes that actively secrete GABA. Chief among them are strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. In one study, participants who received Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 showed significant declines in negative moods and distress. Urine samples also showed a marked drop in levels of the hormone cortisol, giving further proof that stress levels had reduced. People suffering from major depression frequently have elevated levels of cortisol.
Another strain of bacteria, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, has also been found to reduce anxiety by increasing the production of GABA receptors.
“In humans, probiotic consumption in a number of studies resulted in higher self-ratings as happy versus depressed compared to those consuming a placebo,” says Coker Ross.
Other studies showed improvement in mood, reaction to stress, improvement in irritable bowel syndrome (which is associated with problems in the gut-brain axis), and reduced attention to negative stimuli in their environment (often a trigger for depression).
At MIT, a team of biologists proved that a specific strain of Lactobacillus reuteri, delivered in either yogurt or in supplement form, improves mood, appearance, and general health by increasing levels of oxytocin, the hormone that kicks in when you cuddle, hug, or have sex.
It appears that other psychobiotic microbes a ct directly on nerve-cell receptors to influence brain states. Lactobacillus acidophilus — commonly found in yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi — improves the functioning of in the spinal cord. These receptors are critical to regulating pain.
B. infantis, L. reuteri, and several other strains of gut bacteria work throughout the immune system by attacking inflammation, a hallmark of depression.
A review of 38 studies found that probiotics effectively reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, autism, and obsessive compulsive disorder, while improving various kinds of memory. A meta-analysis of 96 trials found that probiotics were associated with a significant reduction in depression.
More Ways The Gut Influences The Brain
Besides using the vagus nerve and neurotransmitters, scientists believe the gut has some control over the brain by reducing cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone linked to brain fog, anxiety, depression, mood swings, memory loss, concentration irregularities, and mental disorders of all kinds. It’s not exactly known how this happens, however, in one study, participants who took a combination of Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum for a month experienced a large drop in cortisol levels and significant improvement in mood.
Psychobiotics may also work by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), an important brain protein that has natural antidepressant properties and stimulates the formation of new brain cells. Neurological studies in mice showed that disruption of gut microbiota was associated with a decrease in levels of BDNF, which helps keep neurons healthy and promotes the growth of neurons and the development and maturation of connections. Deficient levels of BDNF in early life can cause cognitive deficits, while these deficiencies later in life can be associated with symptoms of neurological diseases like dementia.
As Coker Ross points out, psychobiotics may also act as an anti-inflammatory. When inflammation occurs, chemicals from the body’s white blood cells are released into the blood or affected tissues to protect your body from foreign substances. This release of chemicals increases the blood flow to the area of injury or infection, and may result in redness and warmth. Chronic inflammation can lead to diseases like arthritis and allergies. When it occurs in the brain it can cause numerous brain-related disorders including depression. Certain strains of psychobiotic bacteria have been known to reduce inflammation resulting in fewer anxiety and depression symptoms.
Gut Brain Connection: Closer Look
We have grown up thinking of the brain as control central. So for many it comes as a surprise to learn that we have a “second brain” — the gut and the enteric nervous system (ENS) that greatly impacts the central nervous system with its myriad microorganisms that produce over 30 different neurotransmitters. Additionally, neurons, generally associated with the brain, also are found in our intestines – about 100 million of them. Those “butterflies” and gut feelings we experience are just as real neurologically as headaches.
Research tells us that our gastrointestinal tract is loaded with 100 trillion bacteria (about 3 pounds worth) both beneficial and harmful, collectively known as the microbiome. The balance, or imbalance ( dysbiosis), begins early and can impact us for a lifetime. Each of us has a microbiome as individual as our fingerprints. Virtually everything you do and everything that happens to you from the moment you’re born contributes to the creation of your unique gut flora profile. In fact, increasing evidence on early microbial contact suggests that human intestinal microbiota is seeded even before birth, largely influenced by the health of the mother.
Breast-feeding has been shown to significantly increase the relative abundance of Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, including lactobacilli and Enterococcus spp.
Even the modality of our birth influences our microbiota and subsequent health. According to Dinan, babies born from C-sections largely get microbes from the mother’s skin, from the doctor’s skin, and from operating instruments. Babies born vaginally receive bacteria from their mother’s vagina and her fecal material.
“There are consequences to this,” says Dinan. “We know that babies born by cesarean section are more likely to have allergies and asthma than babies born per vagina. They may also be more likely to put on weight and become obese.”
Plainly, in addition to diet, lifestyle, and environmental influences, there are other factors we have no control over that go into the composition of our adult microbiota.
Probiotics and psychobiotics help right the ship.
6 Ways To Add Psychobiotics
1. Psychobiotic Supplements – These are relatively new, and can be difficult to find. Dinan recommends reading ingredient labels carefully to make sure they contain the bacteria Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, which have been proven beneficial to mood. contains Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus strains.
2. General Probiotic Supplements – These are much easier to find. The key is to make sure they contain some of the bacteria that would be considered psychobiotics. contains Bacillus strains such as Bacillus coagulans and Bacillus indicus HU36, proven to make the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.
3. Eat Probiotic Foods — Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, mainstays of probiotic and psychobiotic supplements, are commonly found in probiotic foods such as unsweetened fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir. Fermented vegetables including pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi are also good choices.
“Most of my clients enjoy probiotics from fermented non-dairy food sources,” says certified integrative nutrition coach Connie Rogers. “These have a positive influence on the intestinal microbiota and gut-brain communication. For instance, Lactobacillus pentosus from fermented cabbage (kimchi) can improve mental functioning and hippocampal production.”
4. Load Up On Prebiotics, Too – Some researchers believe the term psychobiotics should also apply to prebiotics, which act as food for probiotics and encourage their growth. Prebiotics can also reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Foods high in prebiotic fiber include Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, barley, , jicama, onions, tomatoes, garlic, mustard greens, and chicory. Vegetables and fruits grown organically without pesticides are highly preferred. There are also super food supplements such as that provide beneficial prebiotics.
5. Getting Down And Dirty – Gardeners may be onto something. Playing in the dirt albeit organic can be healthful. Beneficial bacteria can enter through your skin as well as your mouth and nose. Mycobacterium vaccae, for example, is a bacteria found in the soil that improves our mood by stimulating serotonin production. Additionally, consider humic acid, a naturally occurring byproduct found in peat humus, brown coals, leaves, and shale.
6. Avoid Strong Medicines – The havoc antibiotics do to beneficial gut flora is considerable. That’s because antibiotics indiscriminately kill all bacteria, good and bad. Other prescription medications can also throw your microbiota into survival mode. Don’t take unnecessary medications. Also consider natural antibiotics such as .
As the research mounts, it becomes increasingly clear that taking good care of our gut is taking good care of our brain and associated mental states. Or in the words of neuroscientist Jane Foster of McMaster University:
“It might be time to start thinking about treating depression from the bottom up instead of the top down. The evidence is there that the brain is responding to the gut. Let’s make that the therapeutic pathway.”
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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