Psybiotics: What They Are + Your 3-Step Guide for Optimal Mental Health
The gut microbiome has taken a well-deserved spot at the forefront of mental health research. Over the last decade, researchers have discovered that the key to our mood, motivation, and overall mental well-being may reside not in our heads, but in our guts. (1)
If you or your loved ones suffer from depression or anxiety, this revolutionary new field of research may hold the answers that modern medicine has struggled to find. By learning how to harness the power of a category of probiotics termed “psychobiotics,” or “psybiotics,” you can take a step towards a happier and healthier life, all without harsh medications.
In order to choose the best psybiotic supplement for you and optimize its benefits, it is important to understand how exactly they work inside of your body. By harnessing this knowledge, you can prep your digestive tract to be the perfect place for these mood-boosting microbes to call home.
Meet Your Microbiome: The Microorganisms that Control Your Mood, Health, Cravings, and More
Your body is home to a community of microorganisms known as your microbiota, with all of their respective genetic material known as your microbiome. (2) These tiny organisms that call our body home are mostly bacteria, however there are also fungi, viruses, protozoa, and archaea.
Researchers have found that everywhere we go, a cloud of personalized microorganisms follows. These creatures are found not only on the inside and outside of our bodies, but on everything we touch and the air that surrounds us.
It may come as a surprise to find out that you are more microorganism than human! The roughly 100 trillion microorganisms that call your gut home collectively contain 150 times the number of genes as the human genome. (2)
Many of our differences, from our favorite foods to our inclination to socialize, may be thanks to this varied genetic material, rather than our own. When comparing one person to another, humans are roughly 99.9% the same genetically – yet our gut microbiomes can differ up to 90%! (3) Mood, weight, and disease status may have more to do with this genome than the human genome.
When it comes to mood and immunity, the key microbial players reside throughout our digestive tracts. We refer to this group of microbes and their collective genomes as our gut microbiome. Your microbiome goes by many other names, including microbiota and microflora. Over the entirety of human history, we have been evolving with these tiny creatures, developing symbiotic relationships more complicated that previously thought.
In this symbiotic relationship, we humans provide our gut flora with nutrition and a place to live, and they provide us with a wide-array of health benefits, many of which we are just beginning to understand.
Our Microflora and Their Role in Immunity, Digestion, Mood, and Cognition
So what exactly do these trillions of microorganisms do for us? Research is just beginning to understand the diverse ways in which they are involved in our health and wellbeing.
1. They Protect Us From Disease
Our digestive tracts are ground zero for all sorts of dangerous pathogens, and without our trillions of bacterial soldiers, we wouldn’t stand a chance against the rapidly changing viral and bacterial pathogens that we encounter at every moment. (4)
As the largest component of your nervous system, you gut plays a critical role in whether or not your get sick. You have no doubt at one time or other in your life felt an uneasiness in your stomach, that was followed by heading to the bathroom for your body to purge its contents. This process is to help protect you from pathogens in the food you ate or water that you drank which can make you sick.
Yet many pathogens are defeated without this drastic step, and your gut microbiome are largely to thank. You have commensal bacteria that are capable of fighting pathogens in your digestive tract – in fact, your good bacteria may be even better at fighting off invaders than your immune system!
One great example of how your gut microbiome protects you from disease comes from Salmonella. No matter how properly you prepare your food, bad-guy microbes are going to make their way in. It is all about how many of them make their way down, and how prepared your digestive tract is to handle them.
Researchers have found that those who have recently been treated with antibiotics are less capable of defending themselves against small levels of Salmonella than are those whose microbiomes are healthy and intact. The reason for this is that broad-spectrum antibiotics kill off not only the dangerous bacteria, but also those commensal bacteria that call your gut home. When these guys are wiped out and a small amount of Salmonella gets through, there is no bacterial police force to eradicate them, leaving you susceptible to illness.
This is only one example of many, demonstrating the importance of our gut microbiome in protecting us from pathogens and disease.
2. They Play a Critical Role in Digestion and Nutrition
Out gut microbiota break down food and provide us with valuable nutrients that we would not be able to get without them. They are responsible for the breakdown of dietary fiber, and they produce small chain fatty acids, vitamin K, and some of the B-complex vitamins. (2)
Some of these microbes excrete butyrate when they eat oligosaccharides, which is in turn used to feed the cells of your colon, heal your gut lining, and modify genes in your brain, leaving you in a happier mood. (4) These genes are associated with cellular repair, which may play a role in modulating mental health. Butyrate and other fatty acids are also involved in glucose tolerance, which in turn can impact how well your body tolerates sugar consumption.
In short, our gut microflora encourages optimal digestion, and with it, improvements in mental and physical health.
3. They Are Involved in Brain Development and Function
Our microbiota are one of the most important parts of our gut-brain axis (GBA), a communication pathway between our digestive tract and brain that is known to have an influence on both neurodevelopment and neurofunction. (2) In fact, their role is of such importance that some have renamed this communication pathway the microbiota-gut-brain axis.
Studies on germ-free (GF) mice, which are mice that are born and raised in completely sterile environments, leading to their having no gut microbiome, have found that they suffer from a wide range of developmental abnormalities. (5) These include an elevated stress response and changes in behavior. These abnormalities were found to be reversible when the mice were treated with intestinal bacteria early, but not late, in life.
One of the most well-studied connections between the microbiota and development is in the role that they play in the development and programming of the HPA axis, which is responsible for our stress response. (2) GF mice were even found to have changes in their brain development, such as a reduced expression of the glucocorticoid receptor in the hippocampus. This receptor is where cortisol and other stress hormones bind.
Other studies have found a relationship between microbiome dysbiosis and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (6) It has long been known that those with ASD also suffer from gastrointestinal troubles, such as intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. While the exact pathogenesis is still being researched, animal studies have found microbiome dysbiosis linked to the development of autism-like symptoms in mice, with the addition of certain bacteria able to reverse many of these phenotypes.
These and other cutting-edge studies suggest that our neurodevelopment in closely tied to our gut microbiota. It appears that the healthier and more diverse our microbiomes are early in life, the more likely we are to grow up healthy, with a properly functioning stress response and immune system.
4. They Influence How We Act and What We Feel
Many of us identify ourselves by how we feel and how we prefer to spend our time. We may think we are anxious, depressed, upbeat, social, or antisocial. Yet groundbreaking animal research suggests that these characteristics may be credited to the health and makeup of our microbiome.
Numerous animals studies have been conducted that have demonstrated alterations in both behavior and mood that are credited to changes in the gut microbiome. (7) Mice with no gut flora, known as germ-free mice, and those with an altered gut flora, have shown signs of depression, anxious behavior, antisocial behavior, and an abnormal stress response.
Fecal transplants from mice with normal gut flora and behavior have reversed many of these symptoms, demonstrating that alterations in intestinal flora can dictate how we feel and act. For example, when anxious mice are given fecal transplants from non-anxious mice, their anxious behavior goes away.
There are many pathways through which our microbiota influence our mood and behavior. One of these is through the production of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals famous for their ability dictate how we feel. (4) Many anti-depressant medications act on neurotransmitters, such as SSRIs, drugs that inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to positive mood.
Our gut bacteria are also capable of releasing hormones and immunological factors that communicate with the brain and can alter behavior. (1) Additionally, through the release of vitamins and other nutrients, our gut microbiomes may support a positive mood and improved mental health.
How We Acquire Our Microbiota: From Birth to Present-Day
Over many thousands of years, we have coevolved with the thousands of species of bacteria that live inside of us. However, the diversity of microorganisms varies greatly from one person to another. As the makeup and diversity of these tiny creatures has such a large impact on our health and wellbeing, this begs the question: where do we get our microbiota from?
Your First Years of Life: How Delivery and Breastfeeding Impact Microbiome Diversity
It is the first year of your life that has the biggest impact on your gut microbiome, although your microbiome does continue to change as you age. (8) Some of the biggest factors that determine your microbial makeup are how you are brought into this world, whether or not you are breastfed, and if you are treated with antibiotics at a young age.
Before you are born, you are protected from the majority of microorganisms – the moment that you are delivered, however, you are bathed in a variety of bacteria and other tiny creatures.
Infants that are delivered vaginally have a leg-up when it comes to microbial diversity. (3,4) While your mom was pregnant, her vaginal microbiota changed in such a way as to house very specific bacterial species that pass onto you when delivered vaginally. (4) In contrast, those who are delivered via Cesarean section have a microbiota more similar to that of their mother’s skin than their mother’s vaginal microbiota. (6)
Studies suggest that babies born via C-section are more likely to suffer from allergies, asthma, depression, and anxiety. Fortunately, other studies have found that at around six weeks the microbiota of many babies delivered via C-section has normalized, likely due to the delivery of more organisms during breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding plays an important role in the continued supply of beneficial bacteria. Breast milk is packed full of probiotic organisms and prebiotics that help to feed the probiotic bacteria. (4) At around six months, this bacterial soup changes composition towards species that are thought to help with digesting solid foods.
While the exact implications of early weaning are not yet fully elucidated, research points to the importance of breastfeeding for health. Some studies have even found that early weaning from breast milk to formula is associated with Autism. (5)
Early Treatment with Antibiotics Can Wipe Out Beneficial Bacteria
As long as you were exposed to bacteria through a traditional delivery and breastfeeding, by the age of 2 your microbiota is largely matured, similar to that of an adult. (4) Yet there is one danger that can undo much of this painstakingly long process: wide spectrum antibiotics.
Just one dose of these medicines can decimate whole groups of beneficial bacteria which may be unable to recover. If you were sick much of your childhood and treated with antibiotics, you are more likely to struggle from digestive and mood troubles as you age.
Of course, antibiotics can save a child’s life, so oftentimes this danger to the microbiome is necessary. Unfortunately, many doctors will throw antibiotics at most any sickness, even viruses on which antibiotics have no efficacy. With increased awareness of the problems that can come from these treatments, doctors and patients can work together to be choosier about when they use these powerful medications.
Your Microbiome Continues to Change With Age
Your microbiome at 80 will be different than it was at 3, suggesting that there are many changes that happen to this community as we age. Numerous factors have been implicated in the health and diversity of our gut microbiota, including environmental factors, psychological state, disease, fitness level, and diet. (2,4,5)
When it comes to damage to our microbiome health, the following activities have been implicated in the reduction of beneficial bacteria and the growth of pathogenic microbes: (1,2,4,9)
High psychological stress
Diseases and antibiotic use
Exposure to toxins, such as pollution and synthetic chemicals
Poor eating habits (think high-sugar, high-fat, highly-processed foods)
Excess alcohol consumption
Drug use, both recreational and medicinal
A sedentary lifestyle
On the contrary, there are many activities and mental states that support a robust microbiome full of beneficial bacteria. These include:
Healthy diet full of fermented and prebiotic foods
Positive psychological states (low stress, happy mood)
Little to no drug and alcohol use
Research suggests that how we live every day of our lives can create either positive changes or negative changes to our microbiome, and thus, our moods and overall health. By eating more fermented and plant-based foods, getting enough sleep, moving more, and supporting a positive mood, we can shape the health of our guts, and with it, our related health and mental wellbeing.
Understanding the Gut-Brain Axis
Much of the impact that your gut microbiome has on your mood and cognition is thought to be through your gut-brain axis, or GBA. (4,5,6) The GBA is like a highway that connects your brain and your gut, where bidirectional communication occurs.
Your GBA is made up of three parts:
Central nervous system – CNS (your brain and spinal cord)
Enteric nervous system – ENS (your gut’s nervous system, also referred to as the second brain)
When your gut microflora, CNS, and ENS are all working together properly, you will be in a healthy and happy state known as homeostasis. But when these systems are not working together well, or one of them is damaged, a condition known as gut-brain axis dysfunction, or G-BAD, occurs.
G-BAD is thought to be implicated in a variety of conditions, from chronic fatigue to depression. Some symptoms of G-BAD include:
There are many ways through which your gut flora communicates with your brain. These microbes are able to product neurotransmitters, hormones, and other neuroactive molecules that can communicate with the brain. Some of these compounds communicate through the vagus nerve, which connects the gut to the brain. Another pathway is through the immune system, where certain microbial-produced compounds interact with the immune system and communicate that way.
While research is still underway to fully elucidate this complicated communication highway, it is clear that the compounds produced by our gut bacteria can have dramatic effects on how we feel, both positively and negatively. By nurturing these commensal bacteria, we may be able to fight many difficult-to-treat conditions, including depression and anxiety.
What Are Psybiotics?
Psychobiotics, or psybiotics, are probiotics and prebiotics that, when taken in adequate amounts, yield psychological benefits. (10) Animal and human studies have demonstrated efficacy for improvements in stress, anxiety, depression, and even memory and learning enhancements with psychobiotic treatment.
Psybiotic supplements are those that contain the probiotics that have shown promise in animal and human research for supporting optimal mood and reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. The best supplements also contain specific prebiotics, which are the food used by the probiotics, to help these microorganisms survive the trip through your digestive tract.
It was only in the last 15 years that scientists discovered this gut-brain connection, whereby the gut flora can impact how we feel and our mental functioning. What started as studies on germ-free mice has grown to placebo-controlled trials in humans.
While still in its infancy, this research gives hope to the thousands of people suffering from mood disorders that medication and lifestyle modification have not been able to help.
Benefits of Psybiotics for Brain Health and Mood
Psybiotics for a Healthy Stress Response
In the modern world, few of us would categorize our lives as low-stress. Even though most of this stress is psychological, such as meeting a deadline or having an argument with a spouse, our bodies react the same way to mental stress as they do to physical stress.
An overactive stress response that yields chronic stress has been implicated in the pathogenesis of numerous diseases. Some of the most common are mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. By learning to react to stress in a healthier way, these and other related diseases would benefit.
The HPA axis is the pathway used by our bodies to cope with stress, and it has been shown to be impacted by our gut microbiota. (2) Numerous animal and human studies have demonstrated efficacy of certain probiotic strains in reducing stress and the related output of stress hormones. (11)
In one study, healthy human participants were first treated with a placebo and then with a psychobiotic strain, Bifidobacterium longum 1714, and subjected to a variety of tests. These tests found that, in comparison to the placebo, B. longum 1714 correlated with reduced stress hormone output, subjective anxiety, and daily reported stress.
This study suggests that by using psybiotics, we can help to lower our stress response. By experiencing difficult situations with lower stress, we can more adequately handle these situations, and long-term, improve our overall mental health and wellbeing.
Psybiotics for Anxiety Disorder
Stress and a dysbiotic microflora are thought to be involved in the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders. Numerous animal models of anxiety have shown improvements when the animals are treated with psybiotics. (2,10)
Preclinical human studies also demonstrate promise. (12) In one placebo-controlled study, healthy men and women displayed improvements in anxiety and psychological distress after taking a psybiotic with both Lactobacillus- and Bifidobacterium-strains.
Psybiotics for a Depression
When it comes to mood disorders, the strongest evidence thus far for the therapeutic use of psybiotics is with people suffering from depression. (2) Studies have shown that depression is linked to a dysbiotic microbiota, with further animal and humans studies demonstrating the efficacy of certain probiotic strains in relieving depression for some individuals.
In one such study, patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and mild to moderate depression were split into either a placebo or psybiotic treatment group for 6 weeks. (13) When comparing these groups, those in the treatment group were more likely to experience improvements in depression and quality of life. These results reached significance, supporting the use of this probiotic strain for the reduction of depression in those suffering from IBS.
3 Steps for Using Psybiotics to Improve Your Mental Health
We are entering an exciting era in over-the-counter health supplements: psybiotic supplements are entering the market. It is important to remember, however, that not every probiotic will yield the results you’re looking for. Furthermore, these supplements are full of living creatures – encouraging them to make a new home in your guts is not as easy as simply taking a pill.
In order to use psybiotics to boost your mental health, you will want to not only pick the right supplement, but also make some lifestyle changes to support the long term health of your gut microbiome.
What you eat may be the single most important thing that you can concentrate on if you want to boost the efficacy of psybiotic supplements. There are certain foods that you will want to eat, and others that you will want to stay away from, in order to give these beneficial bacteria the chance to flourish in your gut.
Step 1: Eat Foods that Support Your Psybiotic Supplements
In order to feed those good bacteria, you will want to eat a diet that is high in fiber. Other nutrients and minerals can also help to support optimal digestive and microbiota health. Here is a list of the best foods to consume to support your psybiotic supplements:
Fruits, especially berries
Vegetables, particularly high-fiber veggies like onions, garlic, asparagus, and cabbage
Herbs and spices
Red wine, in small amounts
Step 2: Avoid Foods that Interfere with Your Psychobiotic Supplements
If you are serious about getting the most from your psybiotic supplements, it is not enough to just take a supplement and add in a bit of veggies here and there. You will want to avoid the foods that are the worst for the health of your microbiota, and with it, your mental health. These dangerous foods include:
Processed sugars (anything with white sugar or corn syrup)
Refined carbs (think white bread and white rice)
Processed, prepackaged foods
Conventional dairy and meat products (opt for organic)
Refined vegetable oils (soy, corn, and canola oils)
Excess alcohol consumption
Additionally, keep in mind that you will want to avoid antibiotics as much as possible, as these will stop the new psybiotic from settling in, while wiping out the commensal bacteria already at home in your gut.
Step 3: Choose the Right Psybiotic Supplements
Remember, not every probiotic supplement is a psybiotic supplement. Even if a supplement helps your health, it may not be designed with with correct bacterial strains to promote a positive mood. Some of the most beneficial strains for specific conditions include: (2,5)
Anxiety: L. plantarum, B. longum
Depression: B. bifidum, L. acidophilus, L. salivarius, L. plantarum, L. rhamnosus
IBS: B. bifidum, B. lactis, L. plantarum
It is also important to purchase a psybiotic supplement that incorporates prebiotics. Without these prebiotics, the psybiotic strains will not have the food that they need to help them stay alive and make it to where they can settle down in your digestive tract.
Psybiotics are a promising new supplement at the forefront of mental health advancement. As everyone’s microbial make-up is different, different strains can influence people differently. It is important to remember that the road to health is a journey. It can take time to heal your gut, and with it, your mood and outlook on life.
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3. Defining the human microbiome
4. The psychobiotic revolution
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6. The gut microbiota and Autism spectrum disorders
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9. The gut microbiota: a major player in the toxicity of environmental pollutants?
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11. Bifidobacterium longum 1714 as a translational psychobiotic: modulation of stress, electrophysiology and neurocognition in healthy volunteers
12. Gut/brain axis and the microbiota
13. Probiotic Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 reduces depression scores and alters brain activity: a pilot study in patients with irritable bowel syndrome