The secret to happiness is in the (very) little things
The gut-brain connection provides a fascinating insight into not only our physical health, but also our mental health. Learn what effect probiotics are having on our gut health and our mood.
Shortly after birth, you were colonized by trillions of micro-organisms that settled down in your gut for life. Made up of more than a thousand species, these micro-organisms are important allies in your health. They boost your immunity to colds and diseases. They help you digest food and produce vitamins. And now, they’re emerging in a starring role as mood managers.
If you find yourself feeling blue, bothered, or bogged down by stress, the blame may lie in your gut. The micro-organisms that reside there are thought to help boost mood, banish anxiety, and alter emotional processing in your brain.
One group of researchers used probiotic supplements to alter the gut microbiome (the community of micro-organism species living in your intestines) of 55 healthy adults and studied the effects. After just 30 days, levels of anxiety, depression, and the stress hormone cortisol all dropped in those taking the supplement.
Another study involved patients with chronic fatigue syndrome—a group that frequently experiences anxiety and depression along with persistent fatigue. After two months, those who had taken a daily probiotic felt fewer symptoms of anxiety.
Depression and anxiety disorders are complex and it can be a challenge “to identify subtypes of individuals and match them to the best treatment,” says Dr. Jane Foster of McMaster University, a member of the Brain-Body Institute, St. Joseph’s Healthcare. “Currently many drug or other trials are often necessary before an effective treatment is found.”
For those experiencing symptoms within the spectrum of disorders, interventions that focus on gut health offer a promising strategy.
With the many communication pathways between intestinal bacteria and the brain, it should be no surprise that the gut influences our emotions. For every anxious grumble, gut-wrenching sadness, and grumpy growl, there is a message going to and from your brain.
“There are many paths between gut and brain,” says Foster. “We are only just starting to figure out which aspects are connected.”
The vagus nerve has emerged as one important pathway for these mood-altering messages. This network of neurons, named for the Latin “wandering,” meanders through the chest and abdomen connecting key organs to the brain stem.
Gut microbiota and probiotics may also be influencing brain activity through neuroactive byproducts and with their ability to communicate to cells that produce serotonin.
Each person has a profile of gut microbiota as unique as a fingerprint. It is influenced by genetics, gender, and age, all of which cause it to change throughout a lifetime. It can also be affected by probiotics and diet.
Your long-term diet impacts which micro-organisms are present in your gut. An unhealthy diet can create an environment that does not support your healthiest and happiest self. But don’t fret if you’ve been indulging in cookies and coffee. Your gut microbiota can experience a speedy recovery.
Dietary changes lead to the presence of different micro-organisms, and probiotics found in fermented foods can also make their way to your gut. Including a range of fermented foods and supplementing with probiotics is a great recipe for a balanced mood.
Sauerkraut—and its spicier cousin, kimchi—is made by combining shredded cabbage with salt and allowing it to ferment. Simple and fun to make at home in a large glass jar or ceramic crock, you can experiment with adding spices and other vegetables. It’s easy to find at health food stores in the refrigerated sections or at your local farmers’ market. Although many grocery stores may also carry it, often these products are missing the magical microbes.
Enjoy this crunchy cabbage dish by the forkful or add it as a condiment to rice bowls, sandwiches, and salads.
This fizzy, tart drink is the best-kept secret of the fermented food world. Make it on your countertop by covering sprouted quinoa, soft wheat kernels, or rye with water and letting them do their thing. In just two days, you will have a lemony drink that’s subtly opaque. Keep it in the fridge and drink a small glassful each day or use it as a starter to make your own almond yogurt. It should last for about a week; if it smells or tastes like it has gone bad, toss it and start again.
Found in most health food stores, tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans. It’s firm, chewy, and delicious when pan-tossed or marinated and baked. Use it in stir-fries, on salads, or as the main event in a meal.
Probably the best known of fermented foods, yogurt needs no introduction. When buying it in the store, take note—when it comes to probiotics, not all are created equally. Steer clear of brands with added sugar, and look for ones that say they contain active or living cultures.
Stress, anxiety, and depression affect not only daily life, but also long-term health. Including a good dose of probiotic-rich foods in your diet and supplementing where needed is an excellent component to any blues-banishing strategy.
While fermented foods are delicious and simple to make, it’s not always easy to eat enough. Supplementing with a probiotic can help support your gut microbiome and keep it in tip-top shape.
Don’t let the selection at the store overwhelm you when you’re trying to pick a probiotic. According to researchers, the benefits exist across strains and combinations. “There are only a couple of strains available commercially, and these mirror the ones that are effective in research,” says Foster.
Always store your probiotics in the refrigerator to keep the live organisms inside happy and fresh. For any questions about storing, taking, or selecting supplements, ask your health care practitioner or your local health food store.