Psychobiotics: A New Approach To Treating Mental Illness?

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Psychobiotics: A New Approach To Treating Mental Illness?

Have you ever heard of the term gut microbiome? I sure hadn’t. Well, it’s best described as the microbes that live in your gut. And apparently, they are communication with our brains – a fact I didn’t know either. But apparently, scientists have known about this strange phenomenon for some time, and are now hailing it as a new frontier in neuroscience.

According to researchers, the gut microbiome can have a significant impact on mood and cognition. Therefore, scientsts are trying to learn how to alter the gut-brain communication to treat mental illness.

More of us have heard of probiotics, however – the live, beneficial bacteria that can be found in foods such as yogurt, or as supplements. They have been shown to reduce both anxiety and depression. Indeed, many studies have been devoted to these little guys.

But according to a paper published recently in the journal Trends in Neuroscience, the scientific community should look beyond probiotics, and consider a broader class called “psychobiotics.” This term refers to any intervention that affects mental health by manipulating elements of the gut microbiome. And you can actually do this yourself, through diet and exercise.

While research is still in its infancy, studies have revealed that increasing the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut can decrease inflammation and cortisol levels, reduce depression and anxiety, lower stress, and improve memory, as well as contribute to number of other positive effects. However, most studies have focused on mice, so more human research is required.

What Is A Psychobiotic? How Does It Work?

As noted, some of your current behavior may be related to promoting positive psychobiotics – such as eating foods rich in probiotics (i.e. yogurt) and eating in a healthy, low-fat diet and engaging in regular exercise.

But some experts say that anything that has an effect on gut flora is potentially a psychobiotic, including things that are negative. These include some antibiotics, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. You can imagine that the list goes on and on.

The communication between gut bacteria and the brain is facilitated through pathways in which signals travel from the gut, through the body, and into the blood-brain barrier. Some key pathways are the enteric nervous system, the vagus nerve, the immune system, and gut hormones.

So what is different between thinking about probiotics and psychobiotics? Well, probiotics are considered to be a mere dietary supplement, but currently, there’s little talk about how they are useful in fighting mental illness.

Despite this fact, the concept of psychobiotics is real, and probiotics are a means to an end. That is, to positively effect mood and brain function, probiotics are a way to achieve good communication to the brain – by intervening as psychobiotics.

And incorporating this concept as a recovery approach to mental illness could allow patients to access psychobiotic treatments, along with guidelines and dose based on individual needs. This approach shows great promise, but as noted, more human research is needed before prescribable treatments can be made available.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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