Probiotics have been in the news for a while. There are certainly many reasons to improve your intestinal flora. When speaking about the benefits of bacteria, integrative medical professionals often point out that adding beneficial bacteria to your daily routine is good for your immune system and digestive processes. Probiotic therapy is being explored as an integral part of the treatment protocol for mental illness as well.
Bacteria in Your Gut
There is approximately 3 to 4 pounds of bacteria in your digestive system. The diversity and quantity you carry is unique to you. You are born with a sterile digestive tract. The first cocktail of bacteria is obtained through vaginal birth and breast feeding. As babies explore their world, they create a more diverse population in their gut. Your DNA also dictates what population of bacteria will thrive in your particular environment. There are beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria. To complicate matters more, a small amount of one type might be good for you, while too much could be detrimental to your health. Some bacteria keep the terrain ideal for healthy processes by fighting off harmful agents, while others make vitamins and chemicals that are vital to life. There are even some essential chemicals in your brain that are manufactured directly by your intestinal biome. When it comes to your gut flora, balance is key.
How Does Bacteria in Your Gut Affect Your Brain
Your intestinal bacteria manufactures hundreds of neuro-chemicals that help with brain function. For example, Serotonin, an essential neurotransmitter that contributes to mood regulation, is mostly created by bacteria in your intestines. Researchers have found that some bacteria can be involved in promoting risk tolerance, reducing anxiety, compulsive behaviors and mood disorders. Studies on IBS and chronic fatigue syndrome show that improving the gut flora of patients decreases anxiety, as well as improves their mood and stress response. Specific probiotics seem to provide different benefits, for example:
- Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum reduced cortisol (stress hormone) and anxiety in both humans and mice.
- Lactobacillus reuteri lowered anxiety in mice.
- Bifi-dobacterium infantis and Chronic B. infantis both reduced depression in mice.
Stress and inflammation directly impacts gut processes and the blood-gut barrier, and therefore compromises our ability to maximize this symbiotic relationship. Most of the studies have been conducted on mice. They show that therapeutic amounts of probiotics can decrease anxiety and lower the stress response.
Your digestive system has more neurons than your spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. It’s been dubbed “the second brain” because it is involved in emotional responses and seems to be so tightly linked to brain functions. It is thought that bacteria use the blood-gut barrier, immune-cells, and the vagus nerve, which runs from your tummy to your brain, as conduits. It is a two way street, so your brain also communicates with the gut and its biome via the vagus nerve. When this nerve is severed the benefits of some probiotics stop.
Probiotics and Better Mental Health
Doctor James Greenblatt, an integrated psychiatrist, has had success using very strong probiotics to help treat obsessive compulsive disorders and anxiety. There is good evidence that gut bacteria imbalances are associated not only with depression and anxiety, but also with autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Not everyone with mental illness can be cured by changing their gut flora, but some, especially those with digestive issues, will benefit from probiotic therapy.
The research in this field is still in its infancy, and much more needs to be done to better understand the link between gut bacteria and the brain. Unfortunately, research funding is heavily controlled by pharmaceutical companies, and these entities have little to no financial incentive to fund studies focusing on natural remedies.
Steps for Improved Gut Health and Better Mental Health
- Clean up your diet. Eliminate processed foods, reduce sugars, eat quality fats (coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and olive oil). Eat wild-caught fatty fishes twice a week. Fill up on non-starchy vegetables and berries. Eat a varied healthy diet.
- Eat plenty of naturally fermented foods, such as Kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt (if you tolerate dairy), every day. These foods are rich in beneficial bacteria.
- Get tested for food allergies and sensitivities, then eliminate the irritating foods from your diet. Eating foods that your body cannot process promotes a constant state of inflammation.
- Reduce your stress level. Our stress response suppresses our beneficial bacteria population (It’s a two way street).
- Pay close attention to how your diet affects your mood. If you see that certain foods promote a depressive state, eliminate them from your diet for a few weeks and make note of any changes in your mental health. Discuss these findings with your doctor.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise helps reduce stress, increases blood flow and improves digestion.
- If you have digestive issues, speak to an integrative doctor about approaches that would best suit you.
- Get enough sleep. Respecting your body’s natural need for rest contributes to a lower stress level.
Taking a quality probiotic supplement is beneficial for the immune system, good digestion and brain function. It is always best to look at the whole person when treating the mind. Our deficiencies, or health struggles, rarely happen in a vacuum, so work with a qualified medical holistic practitioner. Someone versed in medicine, digestive health, nutrition, stress management, and psychology can help you explore the best solutions for you and your family.