ProbioticsThe trillions of good and bad bacteria and other microbes that inhabit your gastrointestinal tract (gut) are collectively known as the gut microbiome. But what’s this got to do with probiotics for mental health?

Disruption – or dysbiosis – of this microbial community occurs when beneficial gut bacteria are depleted or overwhelmed by harmful inflammatory bacteria and other pathogens including parasites, candida and viruses.

It’s now broadly accepted that the gut is connected to the entire body – something naturopaths have known for centuries – so unsurprisingly, studies show probiotics can benefit many conditions, ranging from infectious forms of diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, to rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, eczema, allergies and periodontal disease. Research is revealing the far-reaching ways in which these microbes influence our health, not least our neurological and mental health!

Our Microbial Landscape

Thanks to advancements in scientific research, we now know that in excess of 10,000 microbial species occupy our human body! Each of these species have specific tasks and functions including carrying our genes in the gut to allow us to digest food and absorb a range of nutrients.  This is good news because as humans, we don’t have all the enzymes we need to digest food on our own, we rely on the presence of a healthy gut microbiome to help break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates into vital nutrients and anti-inflammatory agents our body needs to stay healthy.

Probiotics for neurological and mental health

I recently listened to a fascinating webinar titled ‘Managing Healthy Moods and Mental Wellbeing with Probiotics’ which highlights the proven beneficial effects of specific strains of probiotics known as ‘Psychobiotics’ on psychological wellbeing and mental health.

Our nervous system is the ‘control centre’ of the body, which regulates our mood, processes information, forms memories and helps our body cope with stress. Our gut microbiome can impact its function, and vice versa. This two-way signalling seems to occur via the vagus nerve which connects the brain stem to the gut. Recognition of this has led to the proposed name ‘Microbiome Gut Brain (MGB) Axis’.

More than 90% of serotonin – our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter – is produced in the gut under the influence of the microbiome, so it makes sense that emerging evidence indicates that these beneficial bacteria exert their effects via the nervous system, causing emotional, cognitive and mental improvements in patients.

Such probiotics also help to improve gut integrity, influencing our stress response system, inhibiting mast cell activation (think histamine and allergies), decreasing inflammation, and reducing bacteria toxins (lipopolysaccharides – LPS).

Our gut influences the health of our neurons and neurotransmission.  Increased intestinal permeability is often linked to the development of inflammatory autoimmune conditions including multiple sclerosis (MS). Equally, a disruption to the gut microbiome has been linked with autism, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s  and Parkinson’s disease. A healthy gut microbiome is of utmost importance for those at risk of  neuro-degenerative conditions, alongside detoxification support and blood sugar regulation.

How to maintain a healthy gut microbiome

Drinking kefir and probiotic yoghurt help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome balance.  Also helpful are prebiotics, the ‘non-digestible carbohydrates that ‘fuel’ probiotics. The probiotics in the gut ferment prebiotics to use as an energy source. Fermentation releases short chain fatty acids, calcium and magnesium from our food, and discourages pathogenic microorganisms from invading our system.

Natural sources of prebiotics include fermented foods (kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi), ground seeds, asparagus, and garlic (which is both antibiotic and prebiotic), encouraging healthy microbes and eliminating unhealthy ones.

Having said all this, if you have issues with histamine intolerance and decreased diamine oxidase (DAO – which breaks down histamine oxidative deamination) or you are lactose or fructose intolerant, you may be better off taking a dairy-free probiotic supplement.

Do you need supplemental probiotics?

It can be difficult to meet your probiotic needs from food alone, for example when taking antibiotics. Signs you may be short on probiotics include:

  • mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and mood disorders
  • digestive disturbances, e.g. bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea or cramping after meals
  • unusual cravings for sugar and other unhealthy food
  • erratic sleep patterns
  • skin conditions
  • poor immunity
  • candida/yeast infections

It’s important thing to seek advice from your naturopath about supplementation because probiotic strains, as discussed above, are strain specific in action and effect, and ideally should be rotated for maximum effectiveness.