How Probiotics Can Support Your Mental Health
Good physical health has been a topic of research and conversation for decades, even centuries, but good mental health has only recently become a point of focus. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and is all about how we think, feel, and act. It includes many factors such as how we handle stress, having a sense of meaning, and feeling confident in who we are.
Good mental health does not necessarily mean we never feel sad, overwhelmed, or anxious, but rather that we are able to cope with these feelings in a healthy manner and bounce back from life’s adversities. Like good physical health, good mental health means taking care of ourselves and investing in wellness on a regular basis. Our mental wellness can be improved by moving our bodies, connecting with our loved ones, eating nourishing food, engaging in meaningful activities, being out in nature, enjoying a good laugh, and more. We can also improve our mental health with supplements that impact our brain function. In this series we are looking at different supplements that can support mental wellness.
Probiotics and Mental Health
Our bodies host trillions of live bacteria at any given time, but that in itself is nothing to be alarmed about. A healthy individual has a healthy balance between beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. We call the beneficial bacteria “probiotics” and these organisms that exist inside of us perform a number of really valuable activities.
But how do probiotics affect us and our mental health? In the body there is a connection between the gut and the brain, this connection is made by the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve operates a network of fibers (tendrils) that surround our organs. (1) "It controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. It establishes one of the connections between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract and sends information about the state of the inner organs to the brain via afferent fibers." (2)
One of the most recent findings we have discovered is that beneficial bacteria in the intestines produce neurotransmitters and can transmit them through the vagus nerve to the brain. This is why a healthy gut is one of the most important functions in our body. What we eat and how we interact with our environment can have a direct impact on our mental health and how we feel.
Neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin, and GABA are not only produced in the brain but also in the gut. In fact, some estimates suggest that up to 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract, not the brain. Since serotonin is one of our body’s key “feel good” chemicals, it isn’t surprising that maintaining a healthy gut flora is key to reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. All of these neurotransmitters directly impact brain function and mental health and impact mood, focus, sleep, and feelings of stress.
Because an imbalance in the beneficial and harmful bacteria can be caused by antibiotics, intestinal infections, stress, and more, it can be helpful to take a daily probiotic supplement. Studies show that probiotic supplements decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety and help to regulate moods, making them a valuable tool for improving mental health.
Another strategy to support gut and mental health is by watching the foods we eat. What we put in our body can correlate to the condition of our mood and mental health. Dairy, wheat, white sugar and processed foods can create inflammation in the gut and lead to a leaky gut, where the intestinal wall becomes damaged. "This allows undigested food particles, toxic waste and bacteria to "leak" through the intestinal wall and enter the blood stream." (3)
So when it comes to supporting your gut and mental health, it is important to watch which foods you are consuming and to choose foods that support the gut. Incorporate fiber, fermented foods and probiotics to encourage a healthy gut flora and mental well-being.
(1) Lidicker, Gretchen, and M.s. “Could Strengthening Your Vagus Nerve Be The Secret To Crushing Your Anxiety?” Mindbodygreen, Mindbodygreen, 30 Sept. 2019, www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-vagus-nerve-anxiety-how-to-strengthen-it.
(2) Breit, Sigrid, et al. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., 13 Mar. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/.
(3) Campos, Marcelo. “Leaky Gut: What Is It, and What Does It Mean for You?” Harvard Health Blog, 24 Oct. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/leaky-gut-what-is-it-and-what-does-it-mean-for-you-2017092212451.