Is there really a link between one’s microbiome and mental health, i.e., does gut health affect the brain? Find out in this article.
Microbiome and Mental Health: Why It’s Important for Your Sanity
The Surprising Link Between the Gut Microbiome and Mental Health
According to a study entitled The Neuroactive Potential of the Human Gut Microbiota in Quality of Life and Depression, gut bacteria can affect the state of one’s mental health.
The initial findings, reported in the publication Nature Microbiology, have yet to undergo scrutinous reviews and human subject studies. However, it may open doors for an alternative, probiotic-based mental health treatments, i.e., gut health for mental health, once further validated.
Gut Health and Mental Health: Results of the Study
Researchers used GP records and medical tests to look for relationships between fecal microbes, life quality, and depression. The study involved over 1,000 people who were part of the Flemish Gut Flora Project.
The study found two common gut bacteria in people who said they live a high-quality mental life: Coprococcus and Faecalibacterium.
The study found a flipside, particularly for people suffering from depression, the levels of gut bacterium Coprococcus and Dialister were exceptionally low.
Implications of the Link Between Gut Bacteria and Mental Health
While the published study showed a link between gut microbiome and mental health, it didn’t establish causality, either way. Simply put, the study didn’t establish whether one was the cause of or was an influencing factor for the other.
In follow-up studies, however, researcher Jeroen Raes’ team discovered a possible link. Specifically, they found that gut microbes can communicate with the nervous system by generating neurotransmitters that help improve mental health.
The team studied human DNA to reach such a conclusion. They found that the gut microbe helps trigger production of mental health-beneficial hormones like serotonin and dopamine.
Dopamine and serotonin are both “feel good” hormones crucial for a good sense of well-being. Substantial deficits in happy hormones like these are risk factors for clinical depression.
Clinical depression is also closely associated with burnout, and two primary physiological
factors are chronically elevated adrenaline levels and chronically low levels of serotonin.
If probiotic foods and supplements can help increase healthy gut microbe levels and serotonin levels, they may also be helpful in minimizing risks for burnouts.
Probiotic Treatments for Gut Microbiome and Mental Health
Studies on probiotics have established their ability to reduce risks of mental health conditions and other disorders:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Gastrointestinal tract conditions
However, not all microbes are created equal when it comes to helping the body produce beneficial neurotransmitters for happy hormones. For example, those that live out of the human body, e.g., living in soils, don’t produce such neurotransmitters.
Raes, has a theory for why this is so. External microbes, unlike internal ones, didn’t have opportunities to co-evolve with and tap into a human’s nervous system.
Raes is also quick to mention that before probiotics can become an accepted form of depression treatment, researchers like him have a lot of work to accomplish, first.
One of them is identifying the myriad number of gut microbes that live in people’s digestive systems. Only after that can they do deeper studies on which gut microbes produce specific health benefits, e.g., treatment of depression, prevention of allergies, etc.
The good news is, a collaborative study conducted by British and Australian researchers and one by Chinese scientists discovered 100 new strains of gut microbes. To date, these are the most comprehensive lists identifying the different kinds of gut microbes in humans.
Probiotics and Alzheimer’s Disease
The small study done by a team of Iranian scientists is reportedly the first of its kind, i.e., showing probiotics’ effect on Alzheimer’s. It studied 52 senior citizens afflicted with the disease for 12 weeks.
In the study, the subjects were grouped into to namely;
- Those who drank seven ounces of milk fortified with probiotics Bifidobacterium bifidum; Lactobacillus fermentum, L. casei, and L. acidophilus
- Subjects who consumed plain milk only everyday
The researchers subjected the participants to a test that quantified their various mental abilities, including:
- Language skills
They found that the average test scores of subjects who drank the probiotic-fortified milk rose from 8.7 to 10.6 points. On the other hand, the average score of those who drank plain milk only dropped from 8.5 to 8.0.
While both scores were very low, with the highest attainable score being 30 points, the difference in performance was significant. The study’s proponents think that probiotics induced metabolic changes accounted for the difference in average scores of Alzheimer’s patients.
However, scientists need to conduct bigger and more rigorous studies to better establish the Alzheimer’s-improving benefits of probiotic foods and supplemental probiotics.
In recent years, more and more studies, like the above-mentioned ones, are showing that changes in one’s body can also change one’s brain.
In other words, there is a real brain-gut connection. Therefore, people need to pay more serious attention to their gut health if they want to optimize their mental health.
What are you doing right now to improve or maintain optimal gut health? Share tips with us in the comments section below.
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