Fitness Friday: Probiotics for Depression
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44. It affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the U.S. population age 18 and older per year. (Source)
I am one of those 14.8 million.
And so are most of the members of my family of origin.
And so are many of my closest friends.
And so are some of you.
I have been very candid about my 2008 MDD diagnosis, my initial Lexapro/therapy treatment combo, my subsequent Lexapro weight gain and weaning off the Lexapro, and my success in treating depression with natural supplements and lifestyle changes.
For the record, I am not against the use of anti-depressants, in some cases. They helped me emerge from a very dark pit in a very short period of time. I know many people who use them and need them.
But, like all medicine, anti-depressants carry with them significant side effects and risk. So, if there were an alternate (maybe safer? maybe just as effective or more effective?) way to treat depression, wouldn’t you want to know about that?
Yes, me too.
And that is why I was so happy to read about this:
Studies now confirm that probiotics could be a viable treatment for depression and anxiety.
(There are many more studies that need to be done before this is conclusive, but the preliminary studies are both reputable and promising.)
What is a probiotic?
Fancy medical definition: “A preparation of or a product containing viable, defined microorganisms in sufficient numbers, which alter the microflora (by implantation or colonization) in a compartment of the host and by that exert beneficial health effects in this host.”
Laymen/Laywoman Definition: “good bacteria.”
You know when you see “live, active cultures” on your yogurt container? Those are probiotics. And they are good. Very, very good.
A Ground Breaking Study
Researchers at UCLA found that probiotics actually altered participants’ brain function.
The study enlisted 36 women between the ages of 18 and 55 who were divided into three groups:
• The treatment group ate yogurt containing several probiotics thought to have a beneficial impact on intestinal health, twice a day for one month
• Another group ate a “sham” product that looked and tasted like the yogurt but contained no probiotics
• Control group ate no product at all
Before and after the four-week study, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, both while in a state of rest, and in response to an “emotion-recognition task.”
For the latter, the women were shown a series of pictures of people with angry or frightened faces, which they had to match to other faces showing the same emotions.
Compared to the controls, the women who consumed probiotic yogurt had decreased activity in two brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation.
During the resting brain scan, the treatment group also showed greater connectivity between a region known as the ‘periaqueductal grey’ and areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognition. In contrast, the control group showed greater connectivity of the periaqueductal grey to emotion- and sensation-related regions.
In his article summarizing these findings, Dr. James Mercola points out:
“The fact that this study showed any improvement at all is remarkable, considering they used commercial yogurt preparations that are notoriously unhealthy; loaded with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavorings, and sugar. Most importantly, the vast majority of commercial yogurts have clinically insignificant levels of beneficial bacteria.”
And this is the part I found especially fascinating:
Researchers have known that the brain sends signals to your gut, which is why stress and other emotions can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. This study shows what has been suspected but until now had been proved only in animal studies: that signals travel the opposite way as well…Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with their gut. Our study shows that the gut–brain connection is a two-way street… ‘When we consider the implications of this work, the old sayings ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘gut feelings’ take on new meaning.’
Lead Author Dr. Kirsten Tillisch at UCLA
In other words:
It’s important to realize that you have neurons both in your brain and your gut — including neurons that produce neurotransmitters like serotonin. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Perhaps this is one reason why antidepressants, which raise serotonin levels in your brain, are often ineffective in treating depression, whereas proper dietary changes often help.
Dr. James Mercola
Bottom line: The composition of your gut flora not only affects your physical health, but also has a significant impact on your brain function and mental state.
According to a review article in the November 2013 Biological Psychiatry, Timothy G. Dinan, MD, PhD, and colleagues from the University College Cork in Ireland, defined a class of probiotics, called psychobiotics, as “a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness.”
Psychobiotics. I LOVE it.
While the authors of this article caution that not all strains of probiotics have the same effect, they state that preclinical data strongly support the view that an aberrant microbiota can alter behavior, immunity, and endocrinology.
What Does This Mean For You:
To maximize your physical and emotional health, a diet consisting of primarily whole foods is the most important change you can make for your health. It is the Standard American Diet (full of processed foods, added salt and sugar and harmful chemicals) that destroys our gut flora in the first place.
Once you do that, you should also take a daily “dose” of probiotics. (I am not a doctor. This is not a prescription.)
Here are a few ways to consume these probiotics/psychobiotics:
Yogurt: Naturally fermented foods, preferably ones you make at home, are the absolute best way to get probiotics. But, honestly, most of us don’t have time to wait for the dairy, grains and veggies to ferment naturally. So, store-bought is the next best option. Just be sure to read labels and skip ones that are loaded with artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors or excess sugar.
Kefir: a fermented dairy product of milk and fermented kefir grains. Tastes a lot like yogurt. My kids love this.
Sauerkraut: Made from fermented cabbage and other veggies, sauerkraut is not only extremely rich in healthy live cultures, but also aids in reducing allergy symptoms. Sauerkraut — and the similar but spicy Korean dish, kimchi — is also loaded with immune-boosting vitamins that may help ward off infection.
Goat’s Milk and soft cheese: particularly high in probiotics, including thermophillus, bifudus, bulgaricus and acidophilus.
Miso: Made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley, adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup, full of lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria. Beyond its important live cultures, miso is extremely nutrient-dense.
Pickles: When looking to pickles for probiotics, choose naturally fermented varieties where vinegar wasn’t used in the pickling process. A sea salt and water solution encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and may give sour pickles some digestive benefits. (My dad makes pickles like this! Yum.)
Tempeh: A probiotic-rich grain made from fermented soy beans. A great source of vitamin B12, this vegetarian food can be sautéed, baked or eaten crumbled on salads. If prepared correctly, tempeh is also very low in salt, which makes it an ideal choice for those on a low-sodium diet.
Kombucha: Fermented tea (I have seen this in my grocers refrigerator section near the organic yogurt and kefir). It is an acquired taste due to its sour flavor and fermented odor. (I won’t lie here—it smells like vomit.)
Probiotic Supplements: These come in capsule form, usually, and can be found at most retailers who sell nutrition supplements and vitamins. But probiotics can also be added to high-quality dark chocolate, containing up to four times the amount of probiotics as many forms of dairy. (Whole Foods Market sells a delicious dark chocolate probiotic in the refrigerator section.)
Shakeology: (Sales pitch!) A delicious protein shake/meal supplement that comes in a variety of flavors (Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry, Tropical Strawberry, and Greenberry). This is how I get mine and how I usually sneak it into my kids’ diets. You can order it here. (Ordering from this link means I receive a small commission from the sale, but in no way should be interpreted as me telling you to ditch your antidepressants and buy stuff from me. Please. Don’t do that.)
I have been diligent about consuming daily probiotics for more than two years. I knew it was excellent for my gut, but I had no idea of the added anti-depressant benefits, until recently. If you suffer from depression, this simple dietary change could reap huge benefits.
Q4U: Do you consume probiotic foods/supplements?
BIG GIANT DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A DOCTOR. PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH YOUR ANTIDEPRESSANTS AND GO BUY SHAKEOLOGY INSTEAD. PLEASE TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR (UNDERSTANDING THAT MOST DOCTORS ARE NOT TRAINED IN ALTERNATIVE/NATURAL THERAPIES AND WILL ENCOURAGE YOU TO GO THE MEDICINE ROUTE.) DO YOUR RESEARCH, READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN AND MAKE WISE DECISIONS ABOUT YOUR HEALTH. THIS BLOG POST IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOOD SENSE OR A DIAGNOSIS OF YOUR MEDICAL CONDITION.
I relied heavily on the following sources for the information in this post:
Can Probiotics Treat Depression?
Are Probiotics a Promising Treatment Strategy for Depression?
Are Probiotics the New Prozac?/The Gut-Brain Connection
Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics—approaching a definition
Top 9 Powerful Probiotic Foods
Also, linking up with my friend Jill Conyers and her weekly blog hop.
I try to remember to take a capsule everyday. I also gives the chewables to my kids. I use the “NOW” brand that I buy at a health food store. I’m always a little confused though, I believe they are supposed to be consumed on an empty stomach? So I try to give them to my kids first thing in the morning, I usually try to take mine in between meals sometime during the day since I always, ALWAYS have coffee with cream first thing in the morning. Priorities, people. 😉
My probiotics don’t say to be consumed on an empty stomach. I’m not sure if you need to do that or not. I find that curious, since the best way to get them is in food. Let’s investigate and collaborate on our findings.
Thanks for this information. I’ll try to add this to my diet.
Good idea, Mark! You should start fermenting your own cabbage. 🙂
I love love LOVE probiotics and have found them to be a tremendous aid in digestion and staying ‘regular’…….which now that I am in my 50’s is one of the great JOYS of life!!! lol I had not ever heard however about the possible benefits along the lines of treating depression, but this post is fascinating and very informative!! Thanks Sandy! WAY COOL. 🙂 Gonna share it~
Yes, so many benefits. You totally ROCK the 50’s, Becky. I hope I look as awesome as you when I grow up. Thanks for sharing the post.
Thanks for the info Sandy! My 14 yr old daughter has been struggling with depression. I am going to try this for her. 🙂
I give them to one of my children for the same reason. 🙂 So much safer than anti-depressants. Also, be sure she takes daily D3 and fish oil–also shown to have a huge impact on depression.
Thanks for sharing this, Sandi. It makes a lot of sense to me, given my history. When I had my second child, I suffered from PPD–kinda badly. Got that under control, but many years later, I suffered from diverticulitis, eventually ending up having surgery to have 18″ of my colon removed. REALLY bad. Since then (6 years ago), I have taken probiotic capsules regularly. Not only do I feel a whole lot better–better stomach, less gas (!), more energy–I haven’t had an ounce of depression. I have no idea if the two are connected, but your study here suggests they might be.
I will say, though, that not all probiotics are the same. A carton of yogurt is not at all the same as a capsule of probiotic. You have to look at the billions of “good flora” that each item provides. You’d have to eat like 8-10 cartons of yogurt EVERY DAY to get as much good bacteria that is in one capsule. And my probiotic calls for two capsules a day. That’s a LOT of yogurt!
Also, people should know that probiotics are live cultures and need to stay refrigerated in order to really be effective. Don’t buy a supplement that hasn’t been refrigerated and has specific directions to be stored in the refrigerator. They lose their effectiveness after a while if not kept cold.
Hope this helps!
That is one of the most fascinating things about this study—the participants ate yogurt (just yogurt!) twice a day! Didn’t even take the fancy-schmancy capsules. And they STILL had improvement! So, yeah…imagine how much better it could be (I’m not a doctor or a scientist, so I’m just speculating here) if you took a really great probiotic or ate a diet rich in natural probiotics.
I’m confused about the refrigeration part, though. I hear what you are saying, but I’ve gotten mine at Whole Foods in the supplement section. And the ones I have now are from Costco (also not refrigerated). But I’ve gotten lots of different things for my kids (kefir, chocolate, smoothie-drink-things) and they are all in the refrigerator section.
Many of the naturally fermented food items are not refrigerated (that’s what causes the bacteria to grow in the first place).
So, yeah…I need more info on this, for sure. I see a follow-up post in my future. 🙂
Great information Sandy! I haven’t been on antidepressants but have used St. John’s wart. I am a teacher and find myself getting really overwhelmed juggling family and work and can get down. The probiotic route might be the option for me! thanks!
Yes, give it a try! Also, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried SAM-e (instead of St. John’s Wort) but it has wonderful reviews across the board. My physician actually recommends it for depression. But I started taking it long before I saw her for the first time and saw results almost immediately.
(Plus, it sounds just like your name. So, yeah…you should try it just so you can say, “My name is Sami and I take SAM-e.”)
Wow, I hadn’t heard this about probiotics! I take a probiotic pill in the morning (when I remember), because I’ve heard of several other benefits (including helping boost the immune system). They really can do a lot!
Yes, it’s very exciting.
Probiotics are PHENOMENAL. They fight depression, help my stomach ailment, fight off infections and sickness, THEY DO EVERYTHING! I take them daily, without them I would be SCREWED – let me tell you! LOL
Your comment made me laugh. Yes, we’d all be screwed. haha.
This is a promising study. It’s a good thing I love yogurt. I’m currently taking omega-3 to keep depression at bay but I’ll add more probiotics in my diet.
I do the omega 3’s also. Do you take D3? That is also closely related to depression.
Interesting. I added a daily probiotic to my diet about 6 months ago and so many of the benefits are true.
That’s awesome, Jill. Did you see an improvement in your mood?
Hi Sandy, I usually enjoy your blog, but this post concerned me for a number of reasons.
Whilst I take no issue with the UCLA study your article is based on, (and it is indeed published in a reputable journal), the use of the article to support your argument that probitoics are a “safer and more effective way” to treat depression is incredibly misleading. The article itself is one of the first of its kind, and was examining the effect of a probitoic on brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation, on 12 healthy women who were not depressed, via a brain response to an emotional faces attention task. The study was not examining the effectiveness of probitotics as a treatment for depression, and much more research (and of a different nature to this study) is needed before such conclusions can be drawn.
I acknowledge that some people may have been helped by probitoics with regard to their depression. Some of these people may have had limited success with clinical treatments for depression only to see marked improvement when they started taking probitotics. I am not here to discredit alternative therapies, and I believe that any high quality research that can shed further light on depression should warrant our attention. That being said, when you advise people to “take a daily ‘dose’ of probiotics, especially if you suffer from depression or anxiety”, this sounds an awful lot like you are advising people to treat their depression with probiotics.
Telling people how to treat serious illnesses is such dangerous territory, especially when you link your argument to the sale of a product (Shakeology) you will receive commission for, however small. I’m not implying that you would in any way attempt to deliberately mislead anyone for financial gain, but I also believe you would never forgive yourself if, after reading your post, someone then stopped taking their antidepressants in exchange for shakes that you benefit from financially and then ended up hurting themselves. I know you would never want that and there’s only a slim chance that would ever happen, but my main concern is that based on the manner information is presented in this post, it’s not that big of a stretch.
I don’t expect to see a systematic review of all available evidence surrounding this issue on your blog, nor do I expect to see every post you write littered with disclaimers for every sentence. I do however expect to see the issue of depression approached with some caution and a sense of responsibility (given your influence) that I believe was missing from this post.
Thank you for your concern and your thoughts. You raise some excellent points. As a writer of a blog (as opposed to a book with editors and publishers) I (and any blogger) can write whatever I want whenever I want and answer to no one. I try not to do that, though. I am sorry if it appears I’ve been irresponsible.
I have written on the subject of depression more than just about any other and I’ve hit it from just about every angle. Every time I find an alternative treatment or lifestyle change that has been shown to help with depression, whether through clinical trials, preliminary studies or in my own personal experience, I am eager to share it.
I would hope no one would flush their antidepressants for bags of Shakeology. I will add the necessary disclaimers.
I want to add also, that I prior to writing this post, I had spoken with my own personal physician and a clinical psychologist, specifically regarding my care and the care of a close family member who suffers from depression and anxiety. In both cases, the use of probiotics were written into the official treatment plan (along with lifestyle and dietary recommendations).
OK, I am amazed and so thankful to have stumbled upon this! I struggle daily with depression, anxiety, ptsd. I have been on two prescription anti-depressants: one caused severe migraines. Another helped minimally but seemed to contribute to weight gain–an issue I have always fought, and which adds to my depression when I am fighting and losing in that area.
About 4 weeks ago, I started taking a daily probiotic supplement. I did it because my daughter has some gut issues that get noticeably worse when on an antibiotic. I have similar issues, and just thought taking probiotics preventatively might help us all avoid extra health bills in the case that we do have to have a prescription antibiotic.
About the same time, I also began to take 1mg melatonin at night to help me sleep. (I have regular insomnia from the ptsd.) I noticed very shortly after starting both that my early morning depression and anxiety were much improved. And even as the days go on and stress builds, I am not getting anywhere near as crazy as I was just a month ago.
I thought it was the melatonin. (Though some people report that melatonin can make depression worse–in a few cases it seems to help.) I had no idea it could be the probiotic. Or maybe it is both together. At any rate, I am thankful to find some positive support that maybe I’m doing something right!
That is awesome, Rebecca! I hope you have continued success with managing your depression. I just recently tried melatonin, as well. And I loved it. I don’t need it every night, but the nights I’ve needed it, it has been so helpful.
How did I miss this post?!?! Great info Sandy! Over the past 6 months I started supplementing and/or eating for gut health. I started with probiotics and a digestive enzyme.
I hadn’t read about the depression connection. That is amazing!
You didn’t miss it, Jill! You actually commented on it already! haha Maybe you just skimmed it and didn’t retain the info???
Whenever you hear about probiotics, all you hear about is yogurt. So it is good to see there are other foods besides that. But in addition to diet, there are also probiotic supplements.
I’ve done a lot of research on probiotics, because I needed to find a way to stop recurring yeast infections. There is growing research, and studies, that show they can help fight it.
Very informative post! You have rightly established the connection between the brain and the gut and the importance of probiotics to ensure good gut health which in turn paves way for the better general well-being and overall excellent health.
Thanks for these tips. I am starting to eat healthy and this is really helpful.
Moreover i have also started taking probiotics supplements from here https://greathealthylife.com/products/probiotics-and-prebiotics-tals-alive-is-the-very-best-probiotics-and-prebiotics-out-there and they are really effective. TBH