Are you among the 20 percent of adults suffering from anxiety and depression? Find out how nourishing your gut microbiome can make you happier and more relaxed. At the California Center for Functional Medicine, a significant number of our patients list anxiety or depression as one of their top three health concerns. This is not at all surprising given that anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues in our society, with anxiety disorders affecting approximately 18% of adults in the U.S. Anxiety and depression are not the same, but they are often experienced together as a complex set of emotional and functional changes. Both anxiety and depression, along with other mood and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as eating disorders, bipolar disorder or sleep disorders, generally result from a complex interplay of factors. These may include a combination of nutritional, physical, environmental, social, emotional, and spiritual factors, affecting your genetic tendencies and brain biochemistry (meaning that your neurotransmitters, or the chemical messengers within your brain, can be affected by these key components of well-being). You can think of anxiety and depression as disruptions in brain health.
A growing body of evidence shows that our beneficial gut bacteria support positive mood and emotional well-being
The gut microbiome, which we’ve discussed in a number of prior articles , refers to the microorganisms, predominately bacteria (somewhere on the order of 10 to 100 trillion) and their genes, living within the human gut. Many of these microorganisms are in fact essential for good health. When the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut is disrupted, disease can occur. The relatively new understanding of how microorganisms affect every system of our body, along with the incredible volume of research on the microbiome is leading to a shift within medicine, and specifically a shift towards appreciating how important it is to care for our healthy gut bacteria.
Differences in the gut microbiome exist between people with anxiety and depression and those without
Numerous studies in animal models show convincing evidence of a strong relationship between the gut microbiome and mood. For example, studies have found significant differences in the types of gut bacteria in animals exposed to various types of stress such as maternal separation early in life, social stressors, or prolonged restraint. One study, published this month, examined the specific differences in the bacterial make-up of the microbiome in patients with major depressive disorder in comparison with healthy individuals. Significant differences were identified between these two groups. Additionally, the severity of depressive symptoms was related to the amount of a specific bacterium. A lower relative abundance of Faecalibacterium was associated with more severe depression.
Altering the gut microbiome with probiotics can decrease feelings of anxiety and positively affect emotional processing
Several studies show evidence for reduced feelings of anxiety and improved aspects of well-being after taking probiotics. One study used functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which is a type of imaging that looks at brain activity, to evaluate the influence of gut microbes on emotional behavior and underlying brain mechanisms. Specifically, three groups of women were given either fermented milk with probiotics, non-fermented milk, or no intervention, twice daily for four weeks. Functional MRI was performed both at the start and completion of the study to look at brain activity in response to an emotional attention task. The women who consumed the fermented milk with probiotics showed changes in regions of the brain crucial in emotional processing. This study provides further evidence that supporting the gut microbiome can provide measurable changes in emotional processing within the brain. Additional support for the connection between the gut microbiome and mood came from a study that showed the use of specific probiotics significantly decreased anxiety-like behavior in rats and reduced psychological distress in humans.
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