This Surprising Food Might Help Treat Depression

by Lily Feinn

Looking for a quick pick-me-up? Researchers may have unlocked an exciting mood-boosting substance that makes the perfect breakfast treat. According to a recent study out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, a probiotic bacteria found in certain yogurt may help ease symptoms of depression.

A press release published in UVA Today announced that when mice exhibiting “depressive-like behavior” were fed the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus, which is often found in live-culture yogurts, their mood appeared to improve. Furthermore, the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, isolated a mechanism for how Lactobacillus affects the immune system, linking certain gut bacteria levels with depression and providing further evidence to support the Gut-Brain axis. It seems a cup of yogurt could provide a good source of calcium, improve digestive health, and literally brighten up your day! Now, where's my spoon?

Though still in the early stages when it comes to human subjects, this powerful link between what we eat and our feeling-state could spell exciting changes for the treatment of mood disorders. “The big hope for this kind of research is that we won’t need to bother with complex drugs and side-effects when we can just play with the microbiome,” lead researcher Alban Gaultier said according to UVA Today. “It would be magical just to change your diet, to change the bacteria you take, and fix your health – and your mood.”

Gaultier is hopeful that human patients may experience similar benefits as the mice subjects, as the bacteria appears to be processed in much the same way in both species. However, further research will be needed to confirm this brain-gut connection, so there is no need to stock-up on healthful fermented cultures just yet.

To confirm the association between depression and gut microbiota, Gaultier and his team observed the composition of the gut microbiome in mice before and after they underwent a stressful experience. It was observed that levels of Lactobacillus bacteria dropped in the stressed-out mice, and depressive symptoms set in. “When you’re stressed, you increase your chance of being depressed, and that’s been known for a long, long time,” Gaultier explained. “So the question that we wanted to ask is, does the microbiome participate in depression?” Researchers found that one single strain of Lactobacillus added to the mice's food correlated to major changes in mood, seeming to reverse depressive symptoms.

Researchers found that the mice's levels of Lactobacillus also affected their level of the metabolite kynurenine found in the blood, which has been shown to cause depression. Low levels of Lactobacillus led to a spike in the metabolite, and the onset of depressive symptoms.

The link between the gut microbiome and certain immune functions and inflammation that lead to anxiety and depression has been of particular interest to researchers in recent years, and this study provides further concrete evidence of the connection. Further research will help confirm how these connected processes affect the brain and influence behavior. Yogurt probably won't fix all our issues — but, hey, it could help!