If you’ve been looking into holistic treatments for mental health concerns for even a short period of time, you’ve probably encountered research on what’s known as the gut-brain connection or the mind-body connection. The explanation usually contains a brief explanation and a few facts that show the similarities between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain, such as the fact that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut or up to 50% of your body’s dopamine is produced in the gut, but there’s more. The connection is far deeper than that, and it has a lot to do with the bacteria in your colon. Let me explain.
We all have bacteria and other microbes in our gastrointestinal tracts. These microbes, when discussed as a whole, are known as the microbiome or the microbiota. To try and influence the strains of bacteria that are present in the GI tract, people take probiotics, eat yogurt, some drink Kombucha, and still, others eat fermented foods. Each strain of bacteria does something different in the body. Some have beneficial effects on the body, some have little effect, and some have dramatic negative effects on the body.
Gut-Brain Connection: The Microbiome and Your Brain Chemistry
Research is demonstrating and I’ve seen in my own practice that there is a definite connection between the gut and the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves). The brain can influence the gut and the gut bacteria can also influence the brain. As an example, studies have found that chronic stress can change the bacteria that make up the microbiome and that the bacteria in your gut can communicate with your brain through what’s known as the microbiota-gut-brain axis. This usually equates to the bacteria sending signals by way of the immune, neurological, and endocrine systems.
Gut-Brain Connection: Case in Point—Lactobacillus
As an example of a bacterial strain that has a positive effect on the body and specifically on your mental health, let’s look at the Lactobacillus genus. Lactobacillus helveticus is a species of bacteria that has been studied for its interactions with the body via the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Research demonstrates that probiotics consisting of Lactobacillus helveticus have a positive effect on the brain and may be able to improve chronic-stress-induced depression. In animal studies, rats treated with Lactobacillus helveticus displayed lower levels of stress-induced anxiety and depression and improved cognition. The effects of this probiotic were similar to or even better than the effects noted in the rats that were given Citalopram instead of the probiotic.
The conclusions of animal studies do not always hold true when tested in humans, so it’s important to look further than the study I just mentioned. In another study involving only human volunteers, researchers found that when taken daily with another bacterial strain, Lactobacillus helveticus decreased both anxiety and depression over time during the 30-day period over which they were taken.
Research shows that gut bacteria can modulate the stress response and improve mood and anxiety symptoms in humans. Another Lactobacillus strain, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, was also shown to reduce stress-induced anxiety and depression. This study found that the Lactobacillus species decreased anxiety and depression by working through the vagus nerve and pathways related to the neurotransmitter GABA.
Gut-Brain Connection: Another Case in Point—Clostridia
Now let’s look at an example of a bacterial strain that has a negative effect—the Clostridia species. It’s normal to have some Clostridia species in healthy tissues. If your gut bacteria is comprised mainly of Clostridia species, however, that’s a sign of an imbalance. A normal metabolite of the Clostridia species, most specifically, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium sporogenes, and Clostridium caloritolerans, is 3-(3-hydroxyphenyl)-3-hydroxypropionic acid also known as HPHPA. The higher the amount of Clostridia bacteria you have in your gut, the more HPHPA is produced. HPHPA is a problem because elevated HPHPA is associated with psychiatric and developmental conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders.
The Clostridia species I mentioned above have the ability to affect brain function. These species convert the amino acid phenylalanine to HPHPA in the body and the HPHPA blocks the conversion of the neurotransmitter dopamine to another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine. This leads to decreased norepinephrine and decreased epinephrine (norepinephrine is normally converted to epinephrine, another neurotransmitter, so if you have lower levels of norepinephrine, the raw material, you end up with lower levels of epinephrine, the final product) and higher than normal levels of dopamine.
Optimizing Your Gut for Mental Wellness
In my practice, I’ve definitely seen the connection between a healthy gastrointestinal tract and a healthy mind. A professional-grade probiotic is definitely among my top recommendations for all of my patients who are experiencing mental health concerns. If you decide to purchase a probiotic, keep in mind that not all probiotics are created equal. In order to reap maximum benefits, you need to purchase a professional-grade probiotic from a reputable company.
[[I’ve included a few of my most frequently recommended probiotics from trusted professional-grade brands below. Click the picture cards to be taken to my online dispensary where you can learn more about these products and purchase.]]
Here’s another tip for you when taking your probiotic: in order to receive the most benefit from your probiotic, it should be taken with a meal. When you’re in a fasting state (e.g. on an empty stomach) the pH in your stomach is so acidic (around or under 2.0) that it rapidly destroys a lot of the bacteria. If you take your probiotic with a meal, your stomach pH will be more favorable to the survival of the beneficial bacteria contained within the capsule.
Many of my patients have heard that probiotics are beneficial, but they either think that they only help people with gastrointestinal concerns or they just aren’t sure how probiotics benefit the body and mind, so they start taking them and then discontinue when they run out or when it’s no longer convenient. I wrote this blog post because I know that when you know exactly WHY you’re doing something and HOW it benefits you, you’re more likely to stick with it and actually experience the associated health benefits.
I hope this tip on how to optimize your gut for mental wellness was helpful to you. If you’d like to learn more about how to improve your emotional/behavioral health by improving your gastrointestinal health, check out the recording of my e-class, “How to Optimize Your Gut for Mental Wellness.”