Mental Health

Can psychobiotics really help our mental health?

If you’re already clued up on gut health, then you’ll probably know all about probiotics and prebiotics and how they can influence our digestive tract, however, psychobiotics go one step further.

We know that our gut impacts both our brain and our central nervous system, but research suggests that psychobiotics could be key to improving both our mental and our emotional health. Studies show that they can have a positive effect on a number of different areas, including our ability to focus, our mood and our stress response.

To understand how psychobiotics can impact our brain, understanding our gut-brain axis and the role that our gut bacteria have to play is key.

What are psychobiotics?

Psychobiotics are prebiotics and probiotics that can impact our mental state. Both prebiotics and probiotics can help support our gut health, but, because of the connection between the gut and the brain, their benefits can also extend to our minds.

The connection between the gut and the brain is so symbiotic that some people refer to the gut as our ‘second brain’. Studies show that the gut can impact everything from our thinking skills to our memory. In fact, the relationship between our gut and our brain is so powerful, that a stressed, inflamed gut can impact our mood and vice-versa.

Probiotics and prebiotics can improve our gut health by populating the gut with good bacteria. Despite different probiotics and prebiotics containing different strains of bacteria, more often than not, these impact the same mechanisms in the body, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, our immune system, and the production of neurohormones and neurotransmitters.

Researchers are now looking into how we can take advantage of the mind-body benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, and use them to improve our mood, stress response and our mental health.

4 ways psychobiotics can help your mental health

Lifts mood

What we eat can have a huge impact on our mood, this is because of the two-way communication between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve.

According to a study in the Trends of Neurosciences, psychobiotics can benefit our mood by influencing the part of our brain associated with emotional attention. In fact, the results of the study showed that participants who included probiotic supplements with the bacteria Lactobacillus casei Shirota in their diet were more likely to rate themselves as happy rather than depressed.

Keen to reap these benefits? Lactobacillus casei Shirota is a bacteria commonly found in fermented milk drinks such as kefir but is also present in sauerkraut and yoghurt.

Better focus and concentration

When our brain is happy and healthy, we often find it easier to concentrate and focus. A key component of a healthy brain is a well-functioning digestive system. We can ensure that our brain stays sharp by including gut-friendly foods in our diet.

While there is no evidence of psychobiotic-induced cognitive enhancements in humans just yet, this could be because we don’t have the tools just yet to detect any subtle changes. Current research shows that improving our gut bacteria has an overall positive cognitive effect, so it’s probably safe to assume that if you look after your gut, you’ll probably find that you have more energy and focus to power through your daily to-do list.

Reduced stress response

When we’re stressed, it can impact our gut negatively. However, research on psychobiotics shows that by improving the health of our gut, we can actually improve our body’s response to stress.

One particular study showed that when given a supplement containing Bifidobacterium longum (strain 1714), participants who took the probiotic had lower levels of cortisol during a stress test in which they submerged their hands in an ice-water bath.

Improves anxiety

Perhaps one of the most exciting benefits of psychobiotics is the impact that they can have on our mental health. In a study by the Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, the psychobiotics used to help improve the gut microbiome of patients with chronic gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, also resulted in an improvement in patients suffering from anxiety and depression.

Researchers from the study believe that this is because the psychobiotic strains used in the study offer a number of different protective mechanisms.

Among the probiotics evaluated, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Lactococcus all displayed the ability to improve anxiety and depression symptoms. You can find these bacteria in a range of different foods like kefir, yoghurt, pickled vegetables, tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, and miso. Just note that the quantities and quality of the bacteria will vary depending on the product.

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Words: Stacey Carter