One way or another, we have all heard about probiotics by now. These beneficial bacteria are often associated with gastrointestinal wellbeing and immune protection, but were you aware of the benefits of probiotics for anxiety and moods disorders as well?
It turns out that such microscopic organisms can have a great impact not only on your digestive patterns and pathogen screening but also on your mental state in the long-term. This implies that taking care of your intestinal microflora will automatically reflect on your overall wellness. But what exactly are probiotics and how come do they manage to influence your entire organism? Let’s find out.
The pros of probiotics
As any basic online search will tell you, probiotics represent microscopic bacteria that naturally inhabit the gut, urinary, and vaginal system. The main function of these ‘friendly’ microorganisms is to ensure correct digestive movement by breaking down foods and allowing for correct nutritional absorption within the lower GI tract.
For example, probiotics of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium type are known for their capacity to decompose tough milk sugars and turn them into lactic acid, therefore facilitating digestion and improving lactose tolerance.
In addition, probiotics can work wonders regarding immunity protection. Many pathogens enter the human organism either via breathing or through ingestion. Because they can be found all throughout the length of the gastrointestinal tract – namely mouth, throat, stomach, small intestine, and colon – ‘good’ bacteria ultimately constitute the first line of defense in the battle against potential infections and illnesses of all kinds.
This ‘bad’ bacteria shielding can also extend past the gut and positively influence the urinary and vaginal systems, with a good microflora level inhibiting yeast overgrowths and eliminating the threat of kidney infections over time.
More recently, researchers have discovered that there is even a direct link between the wellbeing of your intestinal microflora and your psychological balance via what is now known as ‘gut–brain axis’.
The link between your brain and your gut
As farfetched as it might sound, the gut-brain axis is actually essential for the proper development of your entire organism (mental state included).
In this case, the ‘gut’ part refers to your intestinal microflora and vagus nerve (an autonomic nerve which controls the heart, lungs, and gastrointestinal system).
On the other hand, the ‘brain’ term encompasses the central nervous system and the main endocrine glands (the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal or ‘suprarenal’ gland).
The two main components of this axis somehow converge within the enteric nervous system, that is to say, a subdivision of the nervous system responsible with the digestive tract.
Although they seem incompatible and ‘distant’ in terms of your body’s geography, these two centers are highly dependent on one another in order for the body to function properly as a whole, so it makes sense that the disturbances in one should be felt in the other too and vice-versa.
For example, have you ever had indigestion so bad you have felt you couldn’t think straight anymore? Or the other way around: have you ever been so stressed and nervous that you couldn’t eat anything or even felt nauseous? That’s because your brain and your stomach (alongside the rest of the gastrointestinal system) are intrinsically interconnected regarding nutrient assimilation, hormone regulation, etc.
One of the most interesting aspects of this extended connection between the neurological and digestive systems is that they are naturally interdependent.
While the intestinal microflora guarantees nutrient absorption, correct energy levels, and digestive comfort, the brain and endocrine glands balance out hormonal readings and ensures the constant release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Nevertheless, imbalances in both these systems occur every so often, with negative consequences taking their toll on the entire organism and, in particular, on one’s psychological equilibrium.
Anxiety and probiotics
As a mental disorder, anxiety is generally characterized by a perpetual sensation of uneasiness, fear of both the present and future, difficulty to socialize with others, and exacerbated concern. Some individuals frequently experience panic attacks, extreme phobias or OCD-type of manifestations. As there are a number of methods to help deal with anxiety effectively, like visiting a pot shop, or meditation, it is always best to do some research before committing to anything. Plus your health is important, so going about it the right way can make such a difference.
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Physical symptoms of anxiety can include shaking, rapid heart rate, difficulty in breathing, headaches, abdominal pain, etc. It occurs twice as often in women than in men and can go undetected for years at a time if not diagnosed by a professional.
Although standard medication and sustained therapy can be used to improve these conditions, scientists have started looking into the beneficial effects of probiotics in order to combat this mental imbalance from within the body.
Some research claims that a person’s intestinal microbiota heavily affects stress reactivity, which – in turn – reflects on the brain’s chemical makeup and wellbeing.
In fact, certain neurotransmitters responsible with reducing neuronal excitability (like gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA, for short) and happiness (serotonin) are derived especially from within the gastrointestinal system, since they are mainly produced through the fermentation process conducted by Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria.
Not to mention that any sort of long-term inflammatory response within the organism can trigger mental issues such as anxiety.
For instance, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – characterized by constant tiredness, joint pain, and persistent brain fogginess – has been linked to both gastrointestinal and neurological problems. A common approach to deal with the chronic pain of this condition is to self medicate with greensociety but depending on the local legalities of cannabis, it could be difficult to treat in this way.
One 2009 paper concluded that Lactobacillus casei supplementation can ameliorate the symptoms of this disease, which yet again shows the direct correlation between gut health and mental welfare.
Depression and probiotics
Technically, depression can be considered similar to anxiety because it consists of a prolonged neurological imbalance for the individual in question. Signs and symptoms of this disorder are a persistent feeling of sadness, lack of energy to complete even the most simple of activities, fatigue, and even suicidal tendencies.
For instance, exhibiting a spectrum of sad emotions and mental states for extended periods of time is considered one of the main ‘pathways’ towards developing active depression.
But, as one 2015 experiment discovered, administering a specific blend of probiotics – namely Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus salivarius, and Lactococcus lactis – significantly meliorated sadness readings in healthy individuals and diminished the intensity of negative thinking.
A 2011 psychology paper also highlights that the anti-inflammatory properties pertaining to most ‘good’ bacteria can reduce the manifestations of depression.
Moreover, probiotics like Bifidobacterium infantis exhibit the capacity to reduce levels of cortisol (also known as the ‘stress hormone’) in depressed patients, which would otherwise require antidepressants so as to be inhibited and adequately managed by the body.
Mood swings and probiotics
Fortunately, anxiety and depression are not the only mental disorders to be alleviated through a healthy gastrointestinal system.
Emotional fluctuations characterize conditions such as bipolar disorders, mania, and milder forms of mood swings. It is argued that the positive influence of probiotics on the endocrine glands can result in fewer hormonal shits and, therefore, in alleviated symptoms of these often debilitating problems.
As previously mentioned, mood disorders are twice more likely to occur in women than in men, with biology playing an important role in this sense.
The menstrual cycle is accompanied not only by changes within the vaginal system but also in terms of hormonal readings – which is why many individuals suffer from conditions like PMS (Premenstrual Disorder) or the more severe PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder).
Consequently, a good intestinal and vaginal microbiota can lessen the side effects of the fluctuations through increased hormonal stabilization and immunity protection against yeast overgrowths (Candida albicans, for example).
Combating mental illnesses with probiotics
As you can see, probiotics have the very real potential of either accompanying or replacing more traditional ways of coping with mood and mental disorders (depending on their intensity).
So, if you struggle with the same kind of issues, then be sure to include more ‘good’ bacteria into your diet via dairy products (buttermilk, kefir, yogurt), fermented veggies (brine pickles, olives, sauerkraut), and quality dietary supplements.
In connection with actual probiotic types, here are the strains most commonly associated with improved psychological states:
- Bifidobacterium animalis – as one of the 32 species pertaining to the Bifidobacterium genus, Bifidobacterium animalis has been linked to a number of gastrointestinal improvements such as normalized digestion and nutrient absorption. This intestinal improvement hence leads to boosted energy levels and fewer instances of inflammation and stress through the probiotic’s antioxidant properties.
- Bifidobacterium breve – has been shown to significantly inhibit the development of pathogens like Candida albicans and Escherichia coli, which more often than not induce vaginal and gut infections respectively. In addition, studies conducted with the aid of Bifidobacterium breve have revealed that this beneficial microorganism can meliorate anxiety and induce weight loss, whereas more popular antidepressant choices acted in exactly the opposite manner.
- Bifidobacterium infantis – this ‘good’ microorganism can actively increase the production of gastric acids within the gut, hence meliorating digestion and immune screening against pathogens. Testing performed on rats has concluded that Bifidobacterium infantis can diminish symptoms associated with abdominal pain and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) that were either caused by or inducing of stress for the subjects.
- Bifidobacterium longum – research has attributed Bifidobacterium longum with a number of psychological advantages, including increased cognitive functions and better memory. Moreover, this particular probiotic was able to decrease anxiety for both healthy subjects and those suffering from gastrointestinal problems (colitis, pathogen overgrowths, etc.). Bifidobacterium longum‘s antioxidant capacities also benefit those struggling with depression, anger management issues, and increased cortisol readings.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus – aside from ameliorating the side effects of lactose intolerance (by increasing the production of lactic acid within the stomach) and maintaining gastrointestinal microbiota healthy, Lactobacillus acidophilus can highly improve mood and psychological state in the long run. As a result, more recent investigations of this probiotic have demonstrated that Lactobacillus acidophilus displays morphine-like effects on abdominal hypersensitivity, therefore reducing stress levels, anxiety, and mood swings.
- Lactobacillus casei – one of the most promising results discovered in connection with Lactobacillus casei and psychological welfare is this probiotic’s beneficial impact on chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). The findings of these studies were conclusive in showing that Lactobacillus casei not only successfully populates intestinal microflora through resistant colonies, but that these cultures also reduce anxiety, GI pain, and discomfort, as well as depressive tendencies.
- Lactobacillus helveticus – when paired with Bifidobacterium longum, this beneficial bacterium constitutes a safe and not-addictive alternative to more traditional drugs used to manage mood swings and disorders. For instance, analysis uncovered that Lactobacillus helveticus actively decreases depression, anxiety, anger-hostility, and paranoid experiences, once again proving the important role played by the gut-brain axis to an individual’s general health.
- Lactobacillus plantarum – by keeping pathogen colonies under control, Lactobacillus plantarum eliminates situations which require immune and inflammatory responses within the organism and consequently diminishes the occurrence of long-term psychological issues like anxiety and depression. In fact, Lactobacillus plantarum can be effectively used to manage IBS and therefore ameliorate negative emotional responses over extended periods of time.
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus – through its positive impact on the vagus nerve, Lactobacillus rhamnosus has the potential to regulate behavioral responses in healthy subjects on a long-term basis. Additionally, the present probiotic indicated a beneficial action on symptoms of anxiety and chronic fatigue induced by gastrointestinal issues of the IBS type, hence improving mood and intestinal motility alike.
Conclusions: pro-mental health = pro probiotics
Although arguably at their beginning, studies focused on the brain-gut axis and its crucial contribution to human wellbeing have already demonstrated the intricate connection between intestinal bacteria and mental health.
This means that, in the near future, probiotics could constitute a viable alternative – or at least a trustworthy auxiliary – to traditional drugs and therapies currently employed to manage problems such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
The added benefits brought to you by these ‘friendly’ microorganisms regarding digestion and immunity also contribute to the positive image probiotics have gained during more recent years.
Safe, easy to use, and very good for your body and mind too, these minute organisms definitely surpass all expectations when it comes to a person’s general health and mental state. So don’t be afraid to include them into your day-to-day diet for a smoother digestion, de-stressed brain, and happier mind!