Psychobiotics: The future of mental health?

We love this topic, so much so that we recently wrote another article about it . It’s fascinating, it’s intriguing, it’s the future of food and health. But are psychobiotics also the future of mental health? The word psychobiotic may sound like the latest sci-fi blockbuster, but psychobiotics are actually live microbes in the human body that have a beneficial, psychoactive (affecting the mind) effect on our mental state (which still sounds a bit like sci-fi, to be fair).

While much of the research so far has investigated how changes to the microbiome might affect the brain, other researchers are looking at the question in reverse: Can changing behavior alter the microbiome and improve gut health? Exciting new research shows that beneficial bacteria in our gut can have mind-altering effects on how we think, feel, react, and remember. They can help influence our mood and brain function in all these areas: Emotional reactivity / Cognitive health / Temporary stress and anxiety management / Mood.

According to recent studies, certain strains of probiotics—psychobiotics—seem to help ease temporary feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, most likely by communicating with the brain and producing important neurotransmitters like GABA (the “calming” chemical) and serotonin (the “happy” chemical). Research indicates that psychobiotics can also reduce levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone), and increase levels of oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone).

Despite the incredible research being done in this area and all the positive news we’ve heard so far, trying to find the ‘right microbiome’ is pretty much impossible. Just like Earth’s different ecosystems, a healthy ecosystem in the human gut is likely to vary considerably from culture to culture and even from person to person. So rather than trying to find the ideal microbiome, we should be focusing on finding the ideal environment and conditions in which those microbiomes can thrive and consequently, protect us against disease. Instead of aiming to find a quick fix, we need dietary approaches that will rebalance the system to have long-term effects.

Diversity is often an indicator of an ecosystem’s health, we are what we eat. Eating predominately a Western diet high in fats and sugar, low in fiber and the regular use of antibiotics, not only has a devastating effect on our health, it also decreases our microbiome diversity. We are not just what we eat, we are also what our bacteria eat. Doctors have long known that mental health problems like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and even autism, are often associated with gut problems such as inflammation, which is caused by the release of cytokines. These immune system messengers, when produced inappropriately or in excess, affect the brain’s ability to receive and process signals from other parts of the nervous system. Cytokines (inflammatory molecules) are produced in response to increased blood sugar levels, consumption of trans fats, and changes in the bacteria in the gut.

Psychobiotics definitely play a role in the future of mental health but diet alone isn’t going to cure mental illness. However, it can make other therapies work better and it’s something that we have the power to modify. Eating closer to a traditional, pre-industrial diet rich in plant foods, fish, unrefined grains and fermented foods, with less meat and highly palatable processed and snack foods, reduces your risk of mental illness and it’s definitely the key to eating yourself happy.

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