New Research Reveals Mood Boosting Effects of Probiotics

Woman eating yogurt
A recent study highlights the effects of probiotics and prebiotics.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study highlights the potentially positive effect of probiotics and prebiotics on anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • This may occur thanks to better gut health, since a considerable amount of the body's serotonin is produced in the digestive tract.
  • Adding probiotics and prebiotics could be used to complement standard therapies and make them more effective, some experts believe.

Foods containing beneficial bacteria like probiotics, as well as those that support those bacteria, known as prebiotics, may do more than boost gut health, a recent analysis in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health reported. They could also play a role in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms.

Researchers looked at seven studies that involved probiotic and prebiotic therapy in depression and anxiety disorders. They found significant improvements in one or more outcomes related to their symptoms, even among those with more severe depression.

However, some of the studies indicated this needs to be maintained for the benefits to keep going. For example, one study cited by the review showed improvements after eight weeks of daily probiotic use, but those gains were undone after eight more weeks without probiotics.

The Gut-Brain Axis

The importance of the gut in emotional and cognitive function is so strong that it's often called "the second brain." Think of the gut-brain axis as a bidirectional superhighway with plenty of speeding traffic, representing the chemical signals sent between the brain and the digestive system.

These signals are incredibly important for your autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. Although your brain sends messages down to your digestive system—if you get butterflies in your stomach before a presentation, for example, or feel nauseated during times of high stress, that's your gut-brain axis at work—that highway definitely runs in the other direction as well.

A big example is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a range of functions in the body, and is so integral to mood and overall wellbeing that it's called "the happy chemical." Although it plays a major role in brain function, it's estimated that 95% of your serotonin is made in the digestive tract.

Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power

The importance of maintaining good gut health for better emotional regulation can't be overstated, because they're so connected. We often see that if one is thrown off, the other is affected, sometimes quite dramatically.

— Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power

Some standard therapies actually rely on this connection as well. For example, a common medication type for mood disorders, anxiety, and depression is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI.

This works by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain by blocking the reuptake process, so serotonin doesn't reabsorb into the system as quickly. That serotonin is coming up through the gut superhighway to the brain.

Getting the Good Bacteria

Whether you're feeling emotionally challenged or not, increasing gut-friendly foods can be a boon for health, including blood sugar regulation and lowered inflammation, according to registered dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, RD, owner of nutritional counseling practice Entirely Nourished. Fermented foods are particularly good for this, including:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut
  • Beet kvass
  • Kombucha
  • Fermented Pickles

Those tend to increase the diversity of your gut bacteria, and keeping them thriving once they're in the gut is the work of prebiotics, which includes foods rich in dietary fiber such as:

  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Whole grains
  • Bananas
  • Beans

For a bigger serotonin boost, Routhenstein recommends folate-rich foods, which can cause the hormone to release into the brain more efficiently, she says. These include dark, leafy green vegetables like spinach and collard greens, as well as asparagus, broccoli, chickpeas, and lentils.

Although there are supplements—and plenty of them—that offer probiotics and prebiotics, Routhenstein and other dietitians suggest trying to get as much as possible from foods before going that route. That's because you'll also be getting other nutritional benefits of these healthy choices like vitamins, minerals, and fiber that also support better gut health.

What This Means For You

If you are living with a mental health condition and experiencing signs of anxiety and/or depression talk with your primary care physician or another healthcare provider for appropriate referrals. You may be able to do telehealth sessions with a therapist or counselor, even as a new patient.

Furthermore, while alternative therapies like probiotics and prebiotics are promising, there's not enough evidence yet to warrant using them in place of medication you may be taking rather than in conjunction with your meds. Experts caution that abruptly stopping meds used for mental health concerns can be dangerous, and shouldn't be done on your own without medical guidance.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bambling M, Edwards SC, Hall S, et al. A combination of probiotics and magnesium orotate attenuate depression in a small SSRI resistant cohort: an intestinal anti-inflammatory response is suggestedInflammopharmacology. 2017;25:271-4. doi:10.1007/s10787-017-0311-x

  3. Liang S, Wu X, Jin F. Gut-Brain Psychology: Rethinking Psychology From the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Front Integr Neurosci. 2018;12:33. doi:10.3389/fnint.2018.00033

  4. Suhrid Banskota, Jean-Eric Ghia, Waliul I. Khan. Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie. 2019;161:56-64, doi:10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.008

  5. Mcvey neufeld KA, Bienenstock J, Bharwani A, et al. Oral selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors activate vagus nerve dependent gut-brain signalling. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):14290. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-50807-8

  6. Chan M, Baxter H, Larsen N, Jespersen L, Ekinci EI, Howell K. Impact of botanical fermented foods on metabolic biomarkers and gut microbiota in adults with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a systematic review protocol. BMJ Open. 2019;9(7):e029242. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029242

  7. Al-Sheraji S, Ismail A, Manap M, Mustafa S, Yusof R, Hassan F. Prebiotics as functional foods: A reviewJ Funct Foods. 2013;5:1542-1553. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2013.08.009

  8. Khosravi M, Sotoudeh G, Amini M, Raisi F, Mansoori A, Hosseinzadeh M. The relationship between dietary patterns and depression mediated by serum levels of Folate and vitamin B12. BMC Psychiatry. 2020;20(1):63. doi:10.1186/s12888-020-2455-2

  9. Conlon MA, Bird AR. The impact of diet and lifestyle on gut microbiota and human health. Nutrients. 2014;7(1):17-44. doi:10.3390/nu7010017

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.