How Probiotics Affect Mental Health
How Probiotics Affect Mental Health

You may have heard how probiotics can help you with digestive issues, but how about your mental health? Researchers are learning more about the gut-brain axis and how probiotics may positively influence cognitive function, depression and anxiety, and possibly autism, Alzheimer’s and bipolar and other mood disorders.

How Your Gut and Brain Work Together

Have you ever trusted your gut feeling? Been guided by gut instinct? Turns out, it’s more than a saying. There’s an actual gut-brain axis that’s connected by the longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve. Information flows both ways on this network, and one has a strong influence on the other.

Experts call your gut the “second brain.” It produces serotonin (mood stabilizer and sleep regulator), dopamine (pleasure) and gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA (calming). Though we typically think about these neurotransmitters as being brain-based, it turns out 90% of serotonin, for example, is produced in our gut. There are hundreds of millions of neurons in our gut, and they are connected to the brain through nerves, particularly the vagus nerve.

Anyone who has ever suffered a bad case of nerves before a big meeting or test has probably experienced some tummy trouble. Those “butterflies” are not just metaphors.

Stress has long been associated with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome); those with gastrointestinal disorders often develop anxiety or depression. Likewise, those with anxiety and depression seem to have a higher risk of certain illnesses including digestive ones.

How Probiotics Can Improve Mental Health

Researchers in 2016 found that Alzheimer’s patients scored higher on cognitive tests when drinking probiotic milk for 12 weeks prior. Other studies have shown that bipolar patients had reduced mania symptoms when taking a probiotic. Promising work has connected improvements in autism, depression and anxiety, as well as schizophrenia with probiotics. Probiotics that improve mental health or brain function are called “psychobiotics.” While research seems strong, the risks of taking a probiotic supplement are next to nil, so many doctors are suggesting it as an add-on to traditional treatments. Besides pills, you can also eat to improve your gut health or “second brain.”

What Foods are Considered Probiotic

  • Yogurt
  • Unpasteurized sauerkraut
  • Pickles (made with salt, not vinegar)
  • Kimchi
  • Kefir
  • Pickled beets (with salt, not vinegar)
  • Miso soup
  • Soft cheeses such as Gouda
  • Sourdough bread
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • Kombucha
  • Lassi
  • Turshi
  • Acidophilus milk
  • Buttermilk
  • Tempeh