We all know the saying, “You are what you eat,” which we’ve generally interpreted to mean, “Eat healthy, be healthy,” or the inverse. But a handful of studies in the past five years has added some real oomph to this idiom by researching the connection between the bacteria in your gut and your general mood. It turns out there’s a good chance that fostering a healthy gut microbiome can lead to better brain function, lower anxiety and better stress response. Translation: probiotics could help boost your mood!
The Gut-Brain Axis — The Link Between Your Food & Your Mood
Researchers have discovered a rich link between the gut and the brain, a partnership aptly referred to as the gut-brain axis. These two seemingly disparate areas of the body are linked via biochemical signaling between the enteric nervous system (the nervous system that regulates the functions of the digestive tract), and the central nervous system, which includes the brain. These signals travel along the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, which physically connects the brain and the gut.
If you’ve ever heard the gut referred to as the “second brain,” it’s not for nothing! Your intestines produce many of the same neurotransmitters the brain does, including serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid, all of which play a key role in regulating mood. In fact, some researchers estimate that upwards of 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive tract. So you can start to see how the balance of bacteria in your gut could affect your mood!
The Right Balance of Bacteria Can Really Make Your Day
If you think about it bidirectionally, it makes a lot of sense: When the brain senses danger and produces a fight-or-flight response, you can feel it in the pit of your stomach. And when your body is under stress, that stress can manifest itself as queasiness or loss of appetite. Likewise, when the gut achieves the proper balance of good and bad bacteria, it can manifest in miles of smiles.
Researchers have seized upon this connection in recent years, performing studies to determine how probiotic supplements, which help to regulate and maintain the balance of “good bacteria,” positively contribute to the health of the gut-brain axis. The results? Again and again, the research has shown that the intake of probiotics can improve mood and reduce anxiety in subjects. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association discovered that manipulating the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in an animal’s gut can actually alter their brain chemistry.
There’s even a term for the probiotics that have been found to contribute most effectively to mental well-being: psychobiotics. (A word that, while accurate in Greek, we think could still use some zhuzhing. Don’t expect us to be using it in our marketing materials any time soon!)
How Do Probiotics Actually Improve Your Mood?
While these studies have yet to pin down the actual mechanisms by which probiotics (or, you know, that other technically accurate term) improved subjects’ moods, there are three working theories for how probiotics affect the brain:
- Their ability to produce neurotransmitters and other biologically active compounds. When these neurotransmitters are produced in the gut, they may trigger cells within the intestinal lining to release molecules that signal brain function and affect behavior.
- Probiotics help reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that’s often linked to anxiety, and normalize the stress response system, lessening the physical effects of stress and anxiety.
- Probiotics have anti-inflammatory effects, which can help to lower one of the major underlying causes of mood and other cognitive disorders: chronically elevated levels of inflammation throughout the body and brain.
Which Probiotics Are Best for Improving Mood & Reducing Anxiety?
Again, the research in these areas is ongoing, but several studies have shown positive links to the following strains of probiotics and improving mood and reducing anxiety in subjects: Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei. Hmm, those sound awful familiar…
It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway), that maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating the right foods, exercising regularly and engaging in some form of mindfulness or stress-relieving activities provides a great base for probiotics to build upon. It also goes without saying, that a more delicious vehicle for your probiotics couldn’t possibly hurt. Hey, now you finally understand why our logo is a smile!