Probiotics are “good” bacteria that live in our bodies. These friendly bugs may improve mood and mental health, as well as physical wellbeing.
In fact, there are more bacteria in the human body than there are cells, with the majority residing in the digestive tract. Maintaining or boosting the amount and diversity of these bacteria could provide all sorts of physical benefits. For example, research has linked probiotics with better immune function, digestive health, urinary health, and heart health.
Interestingly, more and more research — and anecdotal evidence — suggests that having good levels of probiotics in the body also enhances mood and protects mental health. Probiotics that contribute to mental and cognitive wellbeing are referred to as psychobiotics.
There are many things you can do to boost your probiotic profile, including by making dietary and lifestyle changes. Taking probiotic supplements or eating fermented foods is another way to introduce more beneficial bacteria to your body.
Read on to learn more about probiotics and your mental health.
Probiotics and Mood — The Gut-Brain Connection
Scientists are increasingly focusing on the gut-brain axis — the link between the digestive system and the central nervous system in the brain.
Nerves, along with chemicals called neurotransmitters, link these two systems, allowing each to influence the other. This may not be news to those who experience tummy troubles when nervous or stressed!
In addition, probiotics can reduce inflammation in the body. People with certain mental health disorders often have elevated levels of inflammation, including those with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What Does the Research Say?
Research on the benefits of probiotics for mental and physical health is still ongoing. It appears to be a complicated process, mainly because there are so many bacterial strains. This makes it difficult to know which strains work best for different conditions and in different people.
Nonetheless, several studies show a positive association between probiotics and lower levels of depression. A small study, published in 2017, reports that a daily probiotic reduced depression symptoms in an impressive 64 percent of people with mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression.
Other research from the Netherlands found that people who took probiotics had a significant reduction in negative thoughts, which could lower feelings of depression. And, neuroimaging (brain scans) shows that people taking probiotic supplements have changes in the parts of the brain related to mood.
Taking Probiotic Supplements
You can find probiotic supplements in any health food store, as well as in some pharmacies. Buy a reputable brand and ensure there are high numbers of colony forming units (CFUs) to make sure that lots of good bacteria reach your gut.
Store them according to the package instructions — some need to be refrigerated to keep the bacteria alive. For best results, take first thing in the morning, just before breakfast. Stomach acid is at its lowest at this time, so more probiotics survive the journey to your gut. Never wash the capsules down with hot or acidic drinks.
In the first few days of taking the supplements, you may experience mild side effects such as bloating and gas as your body adjusts to the new bacteria.
Eating Probiotic-Rich Foods
People living in traditional cultures regularly eat fermented foods, which are loaded with probiotics. These are a cheaper and more natural form of good bacteria, although they may not be potent enough for those with serious gut imbalances.
Aside from natural yoghurt, people in our culture rarely consume probiotic-rich foods and drinks on a daily basis. For better gut and brain health, try adding some of the following to your diet:
– Milk kefir
– Water kefir
– Kombucha tea
– Natto, a Japanese soybean dish
– Fermented vegetables
– Traditionally made sourdough bread (usually not the type found in supermarkets!)
Prebiotics — carbohydrates that feed probiotics — are also important for gut health. You’ll find prebiotics in foods like onions, garlic, leeks, beans, oats, bananas, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Do I Really Need to Take Probiotics?
While probiotic supplements are not essential for health, having healthy numbers of good bacteria in the body is vital for wellbeing. So, if you lead a relatively healthy lifestyle and your bacterial profile is well balanced then you probably don’t need to supplement.
For those who feel their digestive system, and mental health, could do with a boost, probiotics could be helpful. This is especially true if your lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the other factors that reduce your probiotic numbers. These include:
Even if you don’t feel the need to take probiotic supplements – and especially if you do – I recommend that everyone add fermented foods to their diet.
So, What’s the Bottom Line on Probiotics for Mental Health?
While the research into probiotics is relatively new, supplements and probiotic-rich foods appear to protect mental health. They are a low-risk option that may prove effective for some people with depression or other mood disorders.
Typically, probiotic supplements are more likely to be most effective when used alongside other treatments, such as therapy, exercise, dietary changes, and possibly medications.
You can get probiotics in most health food stores and some pharmacies, and you can make your own fermented foods at home, or buy them in health stores.
Read more about other foods you can eat to boost your mood and mental health.