Can Probiotics Really Be Used To Treat Depression?

When it comes to treating mental illnesses like clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), we instinctively think of treatments like prescription medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which can be extremely useful options for many people out there. There is some intriguing scientific evidence recently released, though, claiming that taking probiotics could also combat depression. Evidently, our gut plays a huge role in our emotional health.

The gut-brain connection used to be a subject that was only taken seriously by doctors and researchers on the fringe of the medical field, but its place in mainstream science has been growing. This widespread interest is no doubt related to the overwhelming popularity of probiotics in today's culture — from kombucha to greek yogurt, we keep hearing about how eating probiotic-rich on a regular basis can (supposedly) boost digestive health.

However, it seems better digestion is only the beginning where the benefits of probiotics are concerned. We could perhaps see them in the near future used as treatment for obsessive thinking, sudden anxiety, and emotional sensitivity — essentially, all the major side effects of diagnosable mental health issues.

Here are five questions about probiotics as a treatment for depression, answered.

1. What Exactly Are Probiotics?

As you may already know, not all bacteria is bad for you. There are some that are fantastic for your stomach and overall digestive health, and probiotics are one of them. They're the good kind of bacteria — also described as "live" bacteria — that are naturally found in your body, as well as in fermented foods and supplements. They assist with moving food around in your tummy, strengthening your immune system, and reducing the amount of nasty bacteria floating around in your gut.

Sridhar Mani, M.D., professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the Huffington Post that probiotics are "remarkable cures" for symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and urinary tract infections, and there is clear evidence that taking them will contribute to solid overall health. While there is still some research being done on the extent of their benefits, medical professionals everywhere agree that incorporating them into your everyday life can only be a smart choice.

Despite the hype around the product, kombucha isn't the only — and certainly not the best — probiotic you can get your hands on these days. Sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi (a Korean dish made of fermented cabbage) are worthy selections, as are some probiotic chewables and powders.

2. How Is The Gut Related To Depression?

Naturally, the conversation surrounding mental illness has typically focused on wellness of the mind — but the brain and the gut are intricately connected, and the health of one informs the other. The two have an amazing ability to constantly communicate through the nervous system, the immune system, and hormones. The microbiomes in your tummy can significantly affect your stress system response, and it can even release stress steroids if it's not happy. (This is evidenced when you get "butterflies" in your stomach right before a job interview or a date.)

As Joseph Hooper wrote for Prevention, scientists are calling bacteria "a previously unconsidered player" that can determine our moods and help us make sense of who we are. This way of thinking about the human body is being referred to as the gut-microbiome-brain axis. Some licensed psychiatrists have seen such positive, albeit unbelievable, results that they are moving away from prescription medications and instead working closely with their depressive patients on changing their diet.

3. Can Probiotics Help Treat Depression?

In 2013, a study at UCLA was conducted by gastroenterologist Kirsten Tillich. Twice daily for four weeks, 12 women were fed a yogurt that included live probiotic bacteria, while another group was fed yogurt that didn't contain probiotics. At the end of the month, brain scans were performed on both groups. In the scans of the latter group, the sections of the brain associated with hyperalertness and anxiety lit up exceptionally more than they did in the scans of the group that had been consuming probiotics.

Additionally, the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition in the Netherlands conducted a study on 40 young adults. Half of the subjects took a nightly dose of a probiotic powder supplement containing eight types of healthy bacteria, and they took it for four weeks. The other 20 individuals were given a placebo but were told they were taking the probiotic powder, too. Those who actually received the benefits of the bacteria, which included Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, reported less reactivity to sad moods and fewer depressive thoughts.

Preliminary though these studies may be, they are uncovering the important associations between probiotics and depression. Lorenza S. Colzato, author of the Leiden Institute study, told Time that these are fascinating findings which could serve as the foundation of using probiotics to treat symptoms of mental illness.

4. How Exactly Do Probiotics Affect Moods?

Probiotics have the ability to assemble GABA, a neurochemical that promotes relaxation, and creates dopamine and serotonin (the happy chemicals) in your colon. It's not precisely clear how these feel-good transmitters make it from the digestive tract to the brain, but research suggests that they use the vagus nerve, the network that sends electrochemical messages from the gut to the head.

Inflammation has been linked to depression — and probiotics can help control unwanted inflammatory responses in the immune system. They keep the microbiomes functioning properly — and without these organisms, the gut is susceptible to developing food sensitivities. The subsequent reactions to these newly formed aversions or allergies create "inflammatory havoc" and cause depressive symptoms such as fatigue and anxiety. Probiotics can prevent all that chaos from taking place.

5. So, Should I Use Probiotics To Treat My Depression?

Here's the deal: research shows that there is a correlation between probiotics and mental illness — but we're still in the discovery phase. Experts agree that we need to conduct more research in order to safely use probiotics as an effective treatment for mental illness.

However, that doesn't mean you wouldn't be doing yourself a favor by giving probiotics a chance. There are countless testimonials out there by people who have found that diet can transform not only the body, but the mind, too. It can't hurt.

The Bottom Line

If your physician advises incorporating more probiotics into your diet as a way to treat the symptoms of your mental illness, go for it. No matter how you feel about probiotics, though, don't give up on your current treatment without doing your homework and consulting a medical professional.

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