If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or depression, it can be frustrating when you feel like you’re doing everything you’re supposed to—exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, maintaining strong social relationships, managing stress, reducing alcohol consumption, etc etc—yet you still feel low.
Anxiety and depression can be brought on by a multitude of factors, from circumstance to genetics. It’s always best to speak to a doctor first as each case is unique, and if you’ve been experiencing persistent low mood they can try to help you address the source.
Read on as we explore the surprising role our gut microbiome plays in our mental health and just how real ‘gut feelings’ actually are.
Is there a link between gut health and mental health?
In recent years, we’ve come a long way in terms of reducing stigma around mental health due to mental health issues being common, affecting 1 in 4 of us each year. However, there’s still so much progress to be made and one aspect which is yet to be common knowledge, despite so many studies, is the physiological relationship between our brain and our gut, otherwise known as the gut-brain axis. As more research comes to light, the more we can understand how our physical health—particularly our gut health—influences how we feel mentally, and what we can do to improve both.
Is serotonin made in the gut?
Did you know that our digestive system has its own separate nervous system and generates some of the same chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters) as the brain such as serotonin? Serotonin is dubbed the ‘feel-good hormone’ as it acts as a mood stabiliser and also influences sleep and libido. Our gut actually makes about 90% of our serotonin, with our brain making the other 10%. Known as the enteric nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract is lined by millions of nerve cells that are in constant communication with the brain.
Do probiotics help with serotonin?
So solid is the direct link from our gut to our mental health that the gut is often referred to as our second brain. Recent evidence has emerged which indicates that inflammation is linked to depression. Taking supplementary probiotics with live cultures (particularly lactobacillus and bifidobacerium) has been shown to improve wellbeing by “increasing serotonin availability and/or decreasing levels of inflammatory markers”.
Can probiotics be used as an alternative to antidepressants?
One study found that probiotics reduced cortisol levels and depressive symptoms as much as commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications. This is because when bad bacteria dominate the good bacteria in our digestive system, it can lead to chemical reactions that can directly impact your brain, causing damage to brain cells and neurotransmitters while reducing serotonin levels, inevitably leading you to feel depressed and anxious. However, there is not enough research at present for probiotics to be prescribed for mental health. What we do know is that they can help to rebalance your gut bacteria, leading to a healthier gut microbiome that produces more feel-good serotonin, and therefore a healthier happier brain.
Are probiotics guaranteed to help improve mental health?
The evidence for probiotics alleviating depressive symptoms is compelling, however the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve such specific health claims and therefore offers no guarantee that taking probiotics will improve mental health. However, they do show promising potential in preventing stress-induced dysfunction between neurons. And since probiotics have a whole host of other known benefits, from helping to clear up acne to boosting immunity, there’s a good chance that they might just help you feel a little lighter and happier.
We would always recommend speaking to your doctor if you’ve been experiencing persistent low mood. This blog is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Author: Lara Spiller