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Love your gut: Can probiotics improve your mental health?

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Probiotics have been linked to a variety of health benefits, from aiding in digestion to boosting the immune system. But can this “good bacteria” also provide mental health benefits as well? We asked Katherine Anderson, National Director of Naturopathic Medicine at CTCA, to weigh in.

“We know that probiotics have the potential to improve digestion, bowel movements and nutrient absorption, and to reduce infection rates and systemic inflammation,” says Anderson, “And now, research suggests that probiotics have the potential to affect brain activity and assist in treating psychiatric disorders.”

In one study, mice that were fed probiotic bacteria showed significantly reduced stress, anxiety and depression-related behaviors, as well as lower levels of the stress-induced hormone, corticosterone. In other animal studies, gut inflammation increased anxiety-like behavior.

Another study revealed an improvement in brain function among healthy women who regularly consumed probiotic-containing yogurt. Yet another study revealed healthy volunteers who received probiotics reported significantly lower stress levels, and reduced urinary free cortisol levels.

All of this research points to a potential link between what's in your gut and what's in your head. According to Anderson, there is good evidence to demonstrate that the gut and brain have a connection through a two way continuum called the brain-gut axis. The brain sends signals to the gut, which explains why anxiety can cause gastrointestinal issues. And, problems with the gut can affect brain activity and contribute to the development of mood disorders.

“Understanding the gut-brain axis will likely provide novel therapeutic approaches to the treatment of mental illness, including anxiety and depression," says Anderson.

Research to determine the full health benefits of probiotics is ongoing. More research is needed to determine whether regular probiotic consumption can change the balance of bacteria in the gut and alter emotional response to stress and other negative stimuli.

Most probiotics come from food sources, such as yogurt, cheese, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, artichokes, oats and honey. Probiotics are also available in supplement form. Yet not all supplements are created equal. It’s important to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner who is familiar with which strains of probiotics to recommend, especially those who are immune-compromised.