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Beyond immunity: probiotics for better brain health

December 19, 2019
Lily Moran

For decades, probiotics were mainly associated with gastrointestinal health. But as new benefits came to light, scientists conducted more in-depth research on these amazing beneficial “bugs.” And it’s quickly becoming evident just how widespread their benefits really are—far beyond the digestive tract.

Up to 80 percent of your immune strength comes courtesy of the friendly microbes in and around your gut. In fact, probiotics are our first line of defense against pathogenic bacteria. They also line the skin and airways, poised to attack germs that enter and attempt to wreak havoc.

But that’s not all. In addition to treating and relieving a slew of gastrointestinal conditions and digestive complaints, research has found probiotics can reduce risk of allergies, eczema, and certain cancers, lower cholesterol, and improve heart health.1-2

Mood, Memory, and More

Research has also uncovered an important connection between the gut and the brain—a symbiotic relationship referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” These two seemingly unrelated parts of the body are actually linked through intricate signaling systems, the primary of which is the vagus nerve.

The gut and brain communicate along the vagus nerve, which helps explain how things that affect your brain can affect your gut, and vice versa. A perfect example is the upset stomach or butterflies you feel when you’re nervous or anxious. Likewise, the gut-brain axis explains why chronic gastrointestinal issues, like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, often trigger bouts of depression or anxiety. 

Moreover, the gut produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, including serotonin—the “feel good” chemical that hugely influences mood. In fact, up to 90 percent of the serotonin in your body is made in your gut.

According to one study that examined the role of the microbiome on the gut-brain axis:

Most GI diseases are associated with altered transmission within the [gut-brain axis] that are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Current treatment protocols for GI and non-GI disorders may positively or adversely affect the composition of intestinal microbiota with a diverse impact on therapeutic outcome(s). Alterations of gut microbiota have been associated with mood and depressive disorders.

Where do probiotics come into play?

Understanding the complex interactions between the gut and brain, and how they relate to health and disease, is leading to new treatment approaches for mental health, brain, and digestive disorders. One of these is called “psychoprobiotics.”

Psychoprobiotics (or simply psychobiotics) are specific probiotic strains that affect central nervous system functions and behaviors controlled by the gut-brain axis.

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One study sums it up this way: “Psychoprobiotics regulate the neurotransmitters and proteins, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), serotonin, glutamate, and brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which play important roles in controlling the neural excitatory balance, mood, cognitive functions, learning, and memory processes.”4

For one, this means that psychprobiotics can help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. In one study, participants with depression who took probiotics experienced a significant decrease in negative or aggressive thoughts and dwelled far less on their sad mood than those who took placebo.5

Just as exciting, these beneficial bacteria could have a positive effect on neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and neurodevelopmental disorders (autism, ADHD, Tourette’s).4

To be clear, probiotics won’t necessarily “cure” mood or brain disorders. Rather, they work by facilitating health-promoting communication between the gut and the brain. They also help by controlling inflammation, oxidation, and insulin function—all of which may have a hand in the disease process.

Choosing the Right Probiotic

There are plenty of probiotic options on the market, and choosing a high-quality supplement that truly delivers—benefitting your brain, gut, immune system, and more—can be tricky.

First, look for a product that uses microencapsulation technology to protect the bacteria, ensuring they can reach the digestive tract without being destroyed along the way by the acidic environment.

Without this protection (which is the case for many inferior probiotic supplements and so-called functional foods like yogurt and kefir) the majority of the probiotic bacteria get incinerated in your powerful stomach acids long before they reach your lower gut where they do their best work.

Also look for a product that contains a blend of at least 6 different types of bacteria, with at least 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs) per dose. Luckily, many of the strains being studied as psychobiotics are the same strains found in high-quality probiotics—including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.

A great product that meets all of these criteria is Newport Natural Health’s Microencapsulated Probiotic. It also includes prebiotics, which feed the probiotics and keep them healthy and nourished.

In a nutshell, by providing your body with the critical building blocks it needs to function at its peak, you have a better chance of living a healthier and happier life. Probiotics should be at the top of that list.

References

  1. Kechagia M, et al. Health benefits of probiotics: a review. ISRN Nutr. 2013;2013:481651. Last accessed Dec. 11, 2019.
  2. Hungin APS, et al. Systematic review: probiotics in the management of lower gastrointestinal symptoms—an updated evidence-based international consensus. Ailment Pharmacol Ther. 2018 Apr;47(8):1054-70. Last accessed Dec. 11, 2019.
  3. Żydecka K, et al. Microbiome—the missing link in the gut-brain axis: focus on its role in gastrointestinal and mental health. J Clin Med. 2018 Dec;7(12):521. Last accessed Dec. 11, 2019.
  4. Cheng L, et al. Psychobiotics in mental health, neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis. 2019 Jul;27(3):632-48. Last accessed Dec. 11, 2019.
  5. Steenbergen L, et al. A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood. Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Aug;48:258-64. Last accessed Dec. 11, 2019.

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