The gut microbiome is one of the biggest buzz words in the world of wellness and medicine and arguably for very good reason.
Doctors are researching the impact that the microbiome has on a variety of disease states spanning from breast cancer to schizophrenia. The microbiome, or the gut, houses ten times the number of cells that are present in the entire human body and it is central to our overall health. Signs of an imbalanced or unhealthy gut can present in more traditional symptoms such as gas or bloating but may also be indicated by an increase in anxiousness or depressive feelings. The research in this area continues to evolve but what we are understanding from the preliminary research is that improving a person’s gut health or gut microbiome by helping to increase healthy strains of bacteria may be associated with improvements in anxiety and depression.
Think of the brain as our second gut. It is constantly sending and receiving messages directly to and from the gut. This bidirectional communication that occurs between these two organs is called the gut-brain axis. This means that processing in the gut influences and is influenced by the processing the occurs in the brain. People that suffer from an imbalanced gut microbiome that lacks enough good bacteria and may contain too much bad bacteria appear to have an increased risk of anxiety and depressive disorders.
A 2015 review paper explains that the microbiome can be altered by psychological stress and this modulates mood, anxiety, and depressive behaviors. The researchers explain that dysbiosis or an unhealthy gut environment may be associated with an increased risk of diseases such as IBS, autism, bipolar, anxiety and depression. This is likely because the microbiome influences the function of the central nervous system through inflammation and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which is the stress response system that is regulated by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland. Animals that are treated with probiotics have demonstrated a blunted HPA response. Probiotics have also demonstrated an ability to enhance the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan into the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
While more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms, the preliminary research indicates that improving a person’s gut health through the use of probiotics appears to be a very promising therapeutic intervention for mental illnesses. A 2015 randomized controlled trial included 40 healthy individuals without current mood disorders. Half of the group received four weeks of a probiotic food-supplement and the other half received a placebo for the same duration. The results of the study indicate that those in the probiotic intervention demonstrated statistically lower cognitive reactivity to sad mood or in other words, fewer negative thoughts associated with sad mood.
While research is demonstrating that probiotics may have the potential to work in similar ways as antidepressants, there is so much more that we need to determine before specific recommendations can be made. Future research will require a deeper dive that determines which types of probiotics are associated with certain neurological disorders. This is an amazing opportunity for researchers and consumers to better understand the connection between their lifestyle choices, gut health, and anxiety or depressive disorders.
As of now, we do know that the majority of neurotransmitters are produced in the gut and that there’s an undeniable communication occurring between the gut and the brain. This means that incorporating practices that promote a healthy gut may lead to healthier neurological function.
Until we do have more information, one of the best ways to create and maintain a healthy gut goes beyond a high-quality probiotic. You have the ability to foster a healthy gut microbiome through a colorful, fiber-rich, whole foods diet and stress reduction techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation.
Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD is a functional medicine dietitian nutritionist at the first hospital-based functional medicine center in the country and an adjunct instructor in Cleveland, OH. Brigid is a published author of dozens of articles for U.S. News and World Report, the Huffington Post, Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials, and ivillage. When she’s not working she’s usually in her kitchen experimenting with and photographing new recipes for her blog, Beingbrigid.com. She is completely in her element when she is cooking in the kitchen, practicing yoga, listening to her favorite country artists and relaxing with family and friends.