The first course I ever took in nutrition was “Nutrition and Mental Health.” It was one of the continuing education courses offered by the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. Paul Demeda was the instructor and while he was busy drawing parts of the brain, neurons and synapses on the board, my thoughts drifted to my teenage daughter who was in Sunnybrook Hospital for “severe treatment resistant depression.”
I was scared. I wanted to help. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could to help my daughter. I knew there was more to mental health than anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety meds. I followed my “gut” instincts and studied nutrition.
Fast forward to today and thankfully, my daughter is doing much better. Is she 100%? No. I still worry about her, and I have never stopped learning what I can to help. I continue to read articles and studies on mental health and everything related to it. Recently, I have been reading more and more about probiotics and their link to mental health.
There is some exciting (and preliminary) new research about the link between gut health and mental health.
Now, let me fall into my “teacher mode.” (Before I was a nutritionist, I taught elementary school). I’m going to talk a bit about your friendly resident gut microbes (mostly bacteria), probiotic foods and supplements, as well as foods to feed those gut microbes and probiotics (aka “prebiotics”).
WHAT THE HECK ARE “GUT MICROBES?”
Oh, our friendly “gut microbes.” They are the trillions of microbes that happily live in our gut. They help us by digesting foods, making vitamins, and even protecting us from the not-so-friendly microbes that may get in there. Believe it or not, these friendly microbes have mood-boosting functions!
There are more microbes inside our gut, than all of the human cells that make us. Yup, we’re more than half microbe! So, how can they NOT impact our health? It’s a hotbed of research right now and we’re finding out more about their awesome health, and mental health benefits every day. Researchers are just starting to figure out the many gut microbe-brain connections, but it’s a topic very near and dear to my heart, so I couldn’t wait to share it with you.
GUT MICROBES AND PROBIOTICS
The microbes that live in our guts are known as our “gut microbiota”.
The microbes that we can ingest are known as “probiotics”. “Probiotics” are live organisms that you can eat, drink, or take as a supplement. They’re what turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut; and they are great for both your gut health and mental health. Special probiotics that have mental health benefits are called “psychobiotics,” (psycho = mental health, and biotics = live). They’re live organisms that can benefit our psyche. So, what’s the link between gut microbes, probiotics, and mental health?
BAD MICROBES = BAD MOOD
Stress (especially anxiety) can affect our friendly gut microbes. Several studies show that stressed rodents not only have increased stress hormones and stressed behaviours; but, they also have different gut microbes. These connections has been studied, to a small extent, in people too. One study showed that moms with high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy had infants with more of the “bad” gut microbes. But, can it work the other way around? Can changing our gut microbes affect our moods and stress responses? Studies of rodents that grow up without any gut microbes at all (in a “bacteria-free” environment) respond to stress more than mice with normal gut microbes. Then, when they’re given either a probiotic or gut microbes from non-stressed mice, their stress responses often go back to normal. The gut microbe, probiotic, and mental health connections are starting to get interesting, aren’t they?
BAD MICROBES CAN MEAN BAD MOODS
“Gut microbiota and probiotics alter behaviour and brain neurochemistry.” (Ait-Belgnaoui, et. al., 2012)
That’s a pretty powerful statement, isn’t it? Many animal studies show positive effects on behaviour when they get probiotic supplements. For example, after a probiotic, stressed rats had lower levels of both stress hormones and an inflammatory molecule associated with depression (“LPS” – lipopolysaccharide).
Human studies show that after a few weeks of taking probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people have reduced stress hormones, feelings of stress, negative thoughts, and sad moods.
One fascinating study showed that when people took probiotics, brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests showed reduced brain activity for negative and aggressive thoughts. So, as you can see, there is some exciting research on the positive effect that probiotics can have on mental health.
You might be wondering how exactly your gut can influence your moods…
HOW IS THIS GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION POSSIBLE?
It may not seem obvious or intuitive, but your body is interconnected in many ways.
And more and more research is figuring out the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” It’s the very complex connection between your gut, its microbes, and your brain.
This new field has been called a “paradigm shift in neuroscience” (Dinan, 2017).
In fact, there are a number of ways that we’re beginning to understand how our gut microbes can affect our brain.
The “vagus” nerve, is a nerve that directly connects your gut to your brain.
The other ways are through “biochemical messengers.” Biochemicals that are made in your gut and travel through the body to communicate with other parts, including your brain. Biochemicals like short chain fatty acids, cytokines, and even tryptophan (the amino acid that the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin are made from).
The exciting thing is that this may help us with not only moods and stress, but the microbiota-gut-brain axis may one day prove to be helpful for other conditions like autism and Parkinson’s.
So, your trillions of gut microbes seem to be more closely interconnected with our moods than we used to think. What can you do to nurture your own healthy gut microbes?
HOW TO NURTURE HEALTHY GUT MICROBES – PROBIOTICS
First, eat (and drink) probiotics.
Probiotics can be eaten in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented veggies), miso, tempeh, and kimchi. You can drink them in kefir or kombucha. Be sure to choose unpasteurized ones that will be refrigerated at your local grocer. Of course, there are a number of probiotic supplements available too. I can definitely help you out there. Believe me, I have invested a great deal of time reading up on the best probiotic supplements and speaking to different supplement companies. You should always look for one that’s refrigerated and has at least 10 billion active cultures. I also suggest you look for one that has been “third party tested,” which means someone outside the company has tested it and says it’s a quality product. The probiotics with the most research are of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus types. But we still don’t know enough about the psychobiotic effects to make specific mood-boosting recommendations…just yet.
HOW TO NURTURE HEALTHY GUT MICROBES – PREBIOTICS
Second, consider that our resident gut microbes don’t just live inside us to help us – they get something out of the deal too. Food! PREbiotics are “compounds that, when fermented in the gut, produce specific changes in bacterial composition or activity”. They are your friendly gut microbes’ favourite delicacies so they’ll happily grow, and multiply.
Prebiotics are basically foods that contain fiber. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds — even dark chocolate (preferably with at least 70% cocoa).
Giving animals prebiotics can reduce stress hormones, and anxiety-related behaviours. And in people, studies show that taking psychobiotics along with prebiotics can improve both the microbes in our gut, as well as our mood.
How amazing is that?
The science behind interactions of gut microbes and mental health is still new and ongoing. Much of it is in rodents, with a few studies on people. Some show very interesting links and promising potential to help with moods and other areas of mental and brain health.
More research, especially on humans, is needed; so I’ll be on the lookout for new studies in this young and promising area of mood-boosting and stress-busting nutrition.
What if one day we were able to help mental health by fixing gut health? What an amazing, and less moody, world that could be.
Try eating more probiotics like yogurt, kefir, miso, kimchi, and kombucha. Consider taking probiotic supplements, and feel free to contact me before purchasing probiotics. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. I also have an online dispensary where you can search for different probiotics. Online Dispensary
And since you’ve read this far, I’ll tell you my favourite and most recommended brand for probiotics is Genestra.
And don’t forget prebiotics. Those are in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds (and even dark chocolate).
Optimize your gut for more than just gut health, but for mental health too.
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