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:
Top 9 Powerful Probiotic Foods
Also, linking up with my friend Jill Conyers and her weekly blog hop.