Many by now will be familiar with the term ‘friendly bacteria’, referring to the vast population of bacteria in the digestive tract. This population of microbes (the microbiome) play an important role in maintaining our digestive health and many people consume yogurt and other fermented milk drinks to promote gut health. Increasingly research is showing us that the gut microbiome has a significant effect on our mental as well as physical health.
To gain a better overview of the current status of research in this area a systemic review of random controlled trials was conducted and published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology & Motility. The researchers reviewed 25 animal and 15 human trials. Of the studies involving human participants just over half described significant effects of probiotics on central nervous system function and an intake of probiotics for four weeks appeared to be the threshold for noticeable effects. In the human trials the most common bacterial strains tested were Bifidobacterium longum, B. breve, B. infantis, Lactobacillus helveticus, L. rhamnosus, L. plantarum, and L. casei, all of which are present in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and traditional (unpasteurised) sauerkraut.
Looking at both the animal models and human trials the results of this review indicated that probiotics were an effective intervention for a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and memory function. A number of potential mechanisms were identified:
Reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels
Improved immune function
It is also feasible that some of the known metabolites of the microbiome such as GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, might play a role either via the vagus nerve or more directly by crossing the blood-brain barrier. Whilst the review is generally positive the researchers called for further studies to be conducted with human participants in order to be able to draw firmer conclusions on the promising role of probiotics on mental diseases.
Wang, H., Lee, I., Braun, C. & Enck, P. (2016). Effect of Probiotics on Central Nervous System Functions in Animals and Humans: A Systematic Review. Journal of Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 22, 589-605.