A growing pile of research suggests our mental health is intrinsically linked to the presence of certain types of bacteria in our guts and that boosting their levels could help manage psychological disorders such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
While this has led to the mushrooming of probiotic products and dietary regimes that claim to alleviate mental distress, the question remains: Is improving our psychological health as easy as taking a probiotic every morning?
Speaking to scientists, Happiest Health has learnt that this is not as simple as is often made out to be. While there may be lesser risk in supplementing one’s diet with probiotics, they are in no way yet replacements for therapy sessions or medications to manage mental health conditions.
If so, what is all the hullabaloo about?
Dr Mojibur Khan, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology in Guwahati, who has researched the ‘Indian gut microbiome’ for the past decade, says most work currently carried out is to identify beneficial microbes and understand how they affect certain metabolic pathways.
Until now, the leading contender for bacteria that play a role in mental health is Bifidobacterium, a family of fifty odd bacteria that are Y-shaped and are found to make up around 10% of the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our guts. Humans, as it turns out share a very long relationship with this bacterium.
“When a baby is born, Bifidobacterium is the first set of bacteria that it encounters in the birth canal and during breastfeeding,” says Dr Khan. Over time, as the diversity of gut microbes increases due to exposure to different kinds of food, the Bifidobacterium settle in.
Research has found that lower levels of Bifidobacterium have been linked with the incidence of depression and anxiety, as well as with a person’s overall health. It has been found to regulate the immune system, release compounds that serve as precursors to several important neurotransmitters and digest the fibre in our diets.
Specifically, Bifidobacterium produce an enzyme that is used to synthesize the neurotransmitter Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The GABA receptor is often the target for medications used in the treatment of depressive disorders. Low levels of GABA have also been linked with depression and anxiety.
This has prompted several studies to explore the potential of treating people with mental health disorders using Bifidobacterium. According to Dr Shrilakshmi Desiraju, a researcher and pioneer in the probiotics space who co-founded Triphase Pharmaceuticals, Bifidobacteria has been proven clinically to improve mental health as they are able to modulate the level of serotonin in our bodies.
But as we grow older, the levels of Bifidobacteria start to decline, possibly due to stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions in adults or older people says Dr Desiraju. She says it is important to maintain a good number of these bacteria, which can be done through specific dietary interventions.
So, how can you boost your Bifidobacteria levels?
There are foods that contain Bifidobacterium allowing us to supplement its levels externally. These are largely probiotics. There are also other foods that can be consumed to aid the growth of these bacterial communities within our guts. These are largely prebiotics – food for the bacteria.
- Yogurt is an extremely rich and easily available source for Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus
- Home-made pickles contain a lot of good bacteria, including Bifidobacteria. However, it is best to avoid pickles that contain preservatives as these kill the bacteria
- Soymilk is rich in sugars like sucrose and raffinose that help Bifidobacteria thrive, making it a good source for them
- Consuming fruits, nuts and vegetables that are rich in fibre can contribute to the growth of Bifidobacterium
- Polyphenols are plant-based micronutrients that help create a favourable environment for the growth of bacteria in the gut, while inhibiting the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Flax seeds and cocoa are rich sources of polyphenols.
Since there is no harm in taking probiotics and prebiotics and they hold several health benefits, experts recommend using them alongside other treatments for mental health conditions. However, they stress on consulting psychologists or other medical practitioners before making any changes to their diet.
Aishwarya Sampath, a trained nutritionist focusing on helping those with mental health conditions through nutrition and yoga, claims she has seen improvements in mental health outcomes through the prescription of prebiotics and probiotics.
“We have succeeded in treating some people with depression and anxiety by focusing more on their diet. We must have enough good bacteria, like Bifidobacteria, in our guts,” she adds.