What if you could eat certain foods, or take a supplement, that improved your mood, decreased your anxiety, or strengthened your memory? Turns out, there’s promising research showing that certain probiotics may change your gut bacteria in ways that could also lower stress and improve memory. One day, these findings could lead to probiotic treatments for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Called “psychobiotics”, scientists envision one day using them in the form of food or supplements to alter the gut microbiome and treat psychiatric conditions.
Could stressed-out mice be the key to your inner calm?
Psychobiotic research has provided initial data that can be used for further research into probiotics’ impact on the gut-brain axis—the two-way communication network between the GI tract and the central nervous system. Research in pigs was the first to find a connection between levels of gut bacteria and stress hormones, and a study of mice demonstrated a relationship between the gut microbiome and anxiety.
A study on pigs was published in 2017 that attempted to understand how levels of certain healthy bacteria in the gut might impact stress hormones and brain function. The results showed that higher levels of the healthy gut bacteria Ruminococcus resulted in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of the healthy brain marker NAA. These results can be used as preliminary data for future research into microbiota-brain communication.
Also in 2017, research on mice found that the gut microbiome plays a role in regulating miRNA expression in the areas of the brain that control anxiety. miRNAs are known to regulate anxiety and fear-related behaviors in mice. After manipulating the gut microbiota in germ-free mice, the researchers concluded that the gut microbiota can impact anxiety regulation. The study also determined that a healthy microbiota during important stages of neurodevelopment can determine how anxious a mouse eventually becomes.
Psychobiotics may take superfoods to a whole new level
Now that more psychobiotic research is being done in humans, scientists are learning more about the types of probiotics that may impact people’s moods—not to mention other important aspects of brain function.
A 2016 study on a human cohort found that consuming certain probiotics reduced stress and improved memory. In preclinical studies, the bacterial strain Bifidobacterium longum 1714 alleviated stress and improved subjects’ physiology and cognition. Researchers had 22 healthy volunteers mix either a probiotic stick of B. longum 1714 or a placebo stick into their milk every morning for four weeks. They evaluated the participants’ subsequent stress levels, cognitive performance, and brain activity. The probiotic decreased cortisol levels and self-reported anxiety and improved memory. The researchers envision more studies that evaluate the benefits of B. longum 1714 in additional stress-related circumstances and also determine how it affects the body.
Most research on probiotics and the gut-brain axis suggests that probiotics improve symptoms of depression by increasing serotonin availability and/or decreasing inflammation. There’s enough available preclinical data that scientists can start evaluating probiotics’ clinical effects on mental health in depressed patients.
So, can I take a supplement and feel better right away?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While research certainly indicates that taking in more probiotics and prebiotics—either in supplement form or by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts—can contribute to gut and overall health, there’s still work to be done to determine how psychobiotic supplements would work. How long should psychobiotic treatment last, and what dosage works best? How do psychobiotics impact sleep? Scientists will need to answer those questions before psychobiotic treatment can earn FDA approval and be prescribed by healthcare providers.
The supplements currently on the market contain combinations of probiotics that certainly won’t hurt you and could even make your body and mood feel great. There’s no conclusive research, however, about what should go into a psychobiotic supplement at this point. In fact, one recent study found no connection between probiotics and mood, whatsoever.
Psychobiotics: the antidepressant of the future?
In the past ten years, research has further uncovered how the gut-brain axis works. More recent research has begun to shed light on how changes in the microbiome might impact mood and how probiotics can impact symptoms of depression. While most existing antidepressant medications alter neurotransmitter activity in the brain to alleviate symptoms, new antidepressant and anti-anxiety treatments may be able to target the gut, instead.
As research continues to explore which specific psychobiotic supplements can help boost your mood, you can get a head start by adding more probiotics and healthy foods to your diet. Your gut microbiome will be much healthier—and happier.
Want to know more about your own gut microbiome? You and your healthcare provider can use uBiome’s SmartGut testing to find out how your gut microbiome is functioning and to monitor changes in your gut flora over time.