Psychobiotics: The Mind-Microbe Connection
You’ve probably heard of all the amazing ways probiotics—the good microorganisms in our body—help us stay healthy. From providing digestive and immune support to encouraging nutrient absorption and healthy metabolism, our friendly gut flora support a myriad of functions vital to our well-being.
Considering all that they do, the word “probiotics,” which stems from the Latin pro (meaning “for”) and the Greek biotikos (meaning “life”), is a very fitting term for microbes that have such an astounding impact on our health. But, a new phrase is exploding on the scientific and psychiatric scenes—psychobiotics.
Although the word may sound like the title of the latest science fiction blockbuster, psychobiotics are actually live microbes in the human body that have a beneficial, psychoactive (affecting the mind) effect on our mental state.
You see, our human microbiome is a vast ecosystem teeming with trillions of bacteria that work together—both with each other and with our organs and cells—to keep us healthy and vibrant. With about 85% good guy bacteria and 15% bad guys, a balanced microbiome is crucial for maintaining excellent physical health. As it turns out, it’s just as important for our mental health and well-being.
Exciting new research shows that bacteria in our gut can have mind-altering effects on how we think, feel, react, and remember.
How Do Psychobiotics Function?
A number of animal studies have demonstrated the stress-relieving effects of various strains of probiotics on mice1, but human studies are coming to the same conclusions: beneficial bacteria can help influence our mood and brain function in all these areas:
• Emotional reactivity: When shown pictures of negative or scary faces, women who consumed a probiotic-rich yogurt twice daily for four weeks had brain scans that showed decreased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for emotions and sensation2.
• Cognitive health: In the same study, resting brain scans of the women in the probiotic group showed greater connectivity between the brainstem and an area of the brain associated with cognition, the prefrontal cortex2.
• Temporary stress and anxiety management: Medical students getting ready for a big examination drank fermented milk for eight weeks. Compared to the placebo group, the probiotic group had lower cortisol levels (a marker of stress), increased serotonin levels, and fewer GI symptoms typically associated with temporary stress and anxiety3.
• Mood: Forty patients experiencing low mood and sadness received either probiotic supplements or placebo. By the end of eight weeks, the probiotic group had improved scores on the mental health inventory test, as well as significantly higher levels of glutathione, an amino acid antioxidant thought to help prevent temporary depression4.
It’s easy to envision how the microbes in our body, most of which reside in our gut, can impact our digestion and immune system; after all, their proximity to our digestive and immune processes makes them perfect helpers. What’s harder to grasp is how these microscopic bugs can have an effect on our feelings and state of mind.
Psychobiotics and the Brain
Scientists are discovering that microbes in the gut can send messages to the brain via the vagus nerve, which extends from the brain stem all the way to the abdomen. Think of it as a two-way highway: just as our brain can send messages to our gut (like when a scary thought gives you butterflies in your stomach), the good guys in our gut can also communicate with our brain, affecting how we feel at any given time.
The good news is that, according to recent studies, certain strains of probiotics—psychobiotics—seem to help ameliorate temporary feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, most likely by communicating with the brain and producing important neurotransmitters like GABA (the “calming” chemical) 5 and serotonin (the “happy” chemical) 3. Research indicates that psychobiotics can also reduce levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) 3, and increase levels of oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) 6.
Take Care of Your Gut to Support Mental and Emotional Health
We all experience short-lived bouts of stress, sadness, anxiety, and low mood, but research now shows that we may be able to support our mood and brain function simply by taking care of our gut microbiome.
Eat plenty of prebiotics: Studies indicate that prebiotics, indigestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in our gut, can also support positive mood by helping our beneficial microbes flourish. In one trial, volunteers who took prebiotics for three weeks showed decreased cortisol levels and decreased temporary anxiety7. Even better? For a convenient daily dose of prebiotic fiber, add one scoop of food-based, organic prebiotic powder to smoothies, beverages, or soft food.
Good sources of prebiotics include bananas, apples, dandelion greens, onions, Jerusalem artichoke, and fermented foods like sauerkraut.
Take your probiotics: Unfortunately, so many factors in modern life—such as diet, stress, antibacterial products, hidden contaminants in food, and antibiotics both in food and as medicine—can deplete the beneficial microbes that we count on for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Without enough of the good guys in our gut helping to make important chemicals and communicate with our brain, feeling and functioning our best may be just out of reach.
Fortunately, taking a daily multi-strain probiotic formula like Hyperbiotics GBX-Focus that is formulated to support the gut-brain connection can help ensure that you consistently maintain enough of the good guys in your gut to adequately communicate with your brain.
Unlike most probiotics on the market, GBX-Focus utilizes a patented delivery method called BIO-tract® that forms a protective layer around the pearl tablet to protect the live organisms within. Insulated from your harsh stomach acids, the probiotics can safely travel deep into your gut, right where you need them.
Emotions—both positive and negative—enrich our lives each and every day. Caring for the good bacteria in your gut with a healthy whole-foods diet, prebiotics, and a probiotic supplement will help keep your body and mind calm, healthy, and happy.
1. Liu, W., Chuang, H., Huang, Y., Wu, C., Chou, G., Wang, S., & Tsai, Y. (2016). Alteration of behavior and monoamine levels attributable to Lactobacillus plantarum PS128 in germ-free mice. Behavioural Brain Research, 298, 202-209.
2. Tillisch, K., Labus, J., Kilpatrick, L., Jiang, Z., Stains, J., Ebrat, B., . . . Mayer, E. A. (2013). Consumption of Fermented Milk Product With Probiotic Modulates Brain Activity. Gastroenterology, 144(7).
3. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology doi:10.1128/aem.04134-15
4. Akkasheh, G., Kashani-Poor, Z., Tajabadi-Ebrahimi, M., Jafari, P., Akbari, H., Taghizadeh, M., . . . Esmaillzadeh, A. (2016). Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Nutrition, 32(3), 315-320.
5. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., . . . Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055.
6. Poutahidis, T., Kearney, S. M., Levkovich, T., Qi, P., Varian, B. J., Lakritz, J. R., . . . Erdman, S. E. (2013). Microbial Symbionts Accelerate Wound Healing via the Neuropeptide Hormone Oxytocin. PLoS ONE, 8(10).
7. Schmidt, K., Cowen, P. J., Harmer, C. J., Tzortzis, G., Errington, S., & Burnet, P. W. (2014). Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 232(10), 1793-1801.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.