Probiotics: Eating Your Way to Mental Health

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It is common knowledge that our brains can affect our gut and all other parts of our body. For one, when we are anxious, we get the tummy flutters. The question though is: Is this relationship a two-way street? Can our gut also affect our brains? If we go by the two thousand year old Hippocratic conviction that “All disease begins in the gut,” then the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The Gut and Brain Link

Some scientists prefer to think that our digestive system houses our “lower brain” with the enteric nervous system having almost the size, complexity, and quantity of nerves as our nervous system. Why is this so? Our gut has more surface contact with things inside and outside of the body than our skin has. Aside from the millions of bacteria comprising its flora, the stomach and intestines also have to deal with the influx of our ingestions and millions more other outside microorganisms that enter the body. With contact like that, there has got to be some processing going on; hence, the secondary brain-like function.

There is increasing evidence that mental conditions have a connection to the gastric system so much so that the cultivation of good gut flora is presently being tapped as an alternative remedy for depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric illnesses.

A number of studies have surfaced with interesting findings correlating the influence of the gut microbiome on the brain and behaviour. In one, late-onset autism has been linked to abnormal gut health. A study from the Arizona State University in Phoenix discovered that autistic children carried fewer types of gut bacteria and less amount of beneficial microbes. As such, children with autism usually have higher incidences of intestinal problems than normal kids do.

Probiotics for Mental Health

As we now know, whatever is healthy for your gut is healthy for your mental state. Probiotics are good bacteria and yeast beneficial to the digestive system and may therefore benefit your psychological well-being as well.

Although it’s a little too early in the game to be an irrefutable fact, probiotic treatment for mental health disorders holds a lot of promise. This should be great news for thousands of psychiatrically compromised patients. Probiotics may provide a healthier, natural alternative to chemical-based antidepressants, SSRIs, serotonergic drugs, and the like. At the very least, probiotics could offer invaluable secondary support.

The journal, “Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, published a recent study by the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition at the University of Netherlands linking probiotics with mood improvement. The study involved 40 people who did not have any mood problems. These people were divided into two groups. The first group of 20 was given a powdered probiotic supplement which they had to take every night for a month. This supplement contained 8 types of bacteria including the strains, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. The other 20 under the control group unknowingly received a placebo. After four weeks, everyone was subjected to a depression sensitivity test. Those who took the probiotic supplements had less recurring upsetting thoughts when subjected to sadness than those in the control group.

How Probiotics Influences the Mental State

It still remains unclear how digestive bacteria impacts the mind. Researchers believe that the path of influence is through the vagus nerve which is the longest cranial nerve extending from the brainstem down to the stomach. This nerve controls the rhythmic movements of the digestive tract and sends sensory input from the digestive system to the brain. It was also found that two types of intestinal bacteria actually produce the neurotransmitter called GABA which blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain. Low levels of GABA have been attributed to anxiety and mood disorders.

As probiotics increase good digestive bacteria, a diet including fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt may achieve better emotional states with higher GABA production passing through the vagus nerve conduit.

Optimizing Gut Flora

About 80% percent of your immune system resides in your gut so keeping a healthy microbiome in there is well worth the dietary discipline. For a balanced digestive environment:

  • Eat a variety of fermented food. It is best to make these yourself to make sure you eat the genuine article, not some grocery-sold pasteurized version passing itself as a probiotic. Look for recipes for fermented vegetables, kefir (fermented milk), and natto (fermented soy).
  • If pickled food just does not seem too palatable, try a good quality probiotic supplement instead.
  • Stay away from processed and preservative-ridden food. Ditto for refined edibles as well.

Probiotics are amazing foods with two-fold health benefits: a digestive system in tip-top shape contributing to a more stable mental well-being. Consider incorporating probiotics into a lifelong diet to help you achieve optimal physical and mental health.

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