Psychobiotics: “Whaaa?!” Yep, and ya’ gotta’ read this!

by | Nov 18, 2013

do probiotics help with anxiety

Probiotics are hot, flying off the shelves for the prevention and treatment of all sorts of physical ailments. But did you know they can help those of us living with an emotional or mental disorder? Let’s talk…

Early-life stress, such as maternal separation, is known to induce long-term changes in the microbiome.

So what do you think? Most everyone is familiar with probiotics, but I’m not so sure the same applies to psychobiotics.

This is new and fascinating stuff, so we’ll dig right in.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics – pro (“for”) biotic/bios (“life”) – are live bacteria that assist in maintaining the natural balance of organisms in our intestines.

It’s thought the digestive tract contains some 400 varieties of probiotic bacteria that serve to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria, promoting a shipshape digestive system.

The most common outside sources of probiotics are yogurt with live cultures, yeast, and dietary supplements.

Microbial endocrinology 

To get us where we need to go, let’s check-in with a relatively new field, microbial endocrinology. It’s all about the relationship between our digestive tract and our mood and behavior.

Researchers in the field have come to the conclusion that digestive system microbes can regulate the endocrine system – the collection of cells, glands, and tissues that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream, managing our physiological and behavioral activities.

The endocrine system is the lead responder when it comes to the stress hits our bodies take. Without it, and dispatched neurotransmitters and hormones, there would be no fight/flight response. Neither would there be the “feel good” effects of serotonin, dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

The flow

probiotics for depression

Routine flow of bacteria in the gut

So according to microbial endocrinologists, here’s the flow: digestive system microbiota influence the endocrine system, which influences our mood and behavior.

How do they know that? Thanks goes to an accompanying effect of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Folks enduring IBS are more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety and depression. Actually, it’s a reciprocal relationship because both can exacerbate IBS symptoms.

Enter the neurotransmitter GABA. When supplies are low, anxiety and depression may run high. Digestive system bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been shown to produce GABA. And several studies have shown that supplements of either can relieve anxiety in those suffering from IBS.

More evidence? The GI bacterium Clostridium difficile is typically acquired during infancy. It synthesizes at least two toxins that interfere with neurons and possibly the endocrine system.

Fascinatingly, individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and schizophrenia have been shown to have higher than normal levels of this bacterial species.

The take-away? An imbalance in digestive tract microbiota can manifest as both physiological and psychological maladies. And it appears they can be resolved with the use of proper psychobiotic bacteria.

Psychobiotic: defined

Let’s learn more, as we take a peek at a new review article in Biological Psychiatry. Dr. Timothy Dinan and team from University College Cork (Ireland) have come up with a definition of psychobiotic: a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness.

The team go on to review existing evidence that when these bacteria are ingested in adequate amounts, the treatment potential is huge for depression and other “stress-related disorders.”

The study team notes that gut microbiota can change on a daily basis. And there’s even evidence that the form of birth (vaginal or C-Section) can alter one’s microbiota.

But there’s more. Early-life stress, such as maternal separation, is known to induce long-term changes in the microbiome. The team reviewed a study that assessed the potential benefits of a specific probiotic in rats displaying depressive behavior due to maternal separation. Turns out probiotic treatment normalized their behavior, as well as their previously abnormal immune response.

Some probiotics have even been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. And that’s huge because both depression and stress are associated with inflammation.

Human studies

What about human studies? In one, healthy participants received either a probiotic combination (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum) or placebo for 30 days. The participants who received the probiotics reported lower stress levels.

In another study, participants who consumed a yogurt containing probiotics reported improved mood.

Now, as exciting at this is, you have to keep in mind that only a small percentage of probiotics can be considered psyhobiotics. And there’s much work to be done on identifying them. But even the editor of Biological Psychiatry, Dr. John Krystal, stated…

This intriguing new area of research may open new possibilities for the treatment of depression.

One final note, The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) at University College Cork is now looking to develop psychobiotics as “medical foods” with an industry partner. That’s what comes from good research.

That’ll do it

Sure looks as though probiotics – psychobiotics – hold the potential to bring relief for emotional and mental disorders.

I’m looking forward to future research and the generated interventions.

It’s exciting.

Thanks to WebMD,,,

More Chipur titles await. Yours for the reading.


  1. Avatar

    This is fascinating information, and so interesting that just having better health in the ‘gut’ seems to result in better mental health. Once again you have made a strong case and driven home the point that while we need to learn better coping strategies to address depression/anxiety/etc, these all have some physical roots as well. This goes such a long way to reducing the shame and stigma so frequently assigned by self and others to any sort of mental health diagnosis or treatment. Too frequently that has proven a barrier to seeking help and it is positive information that you regularly share on Chipur that helps provide rich, evidence based resources to fight against those false beliefs. Thank you for doing such diligent work.

    • Avatar

      Thanks for your comment and kind words, Patricia. I really enjoy finding relevant material like this and bringing it to Chipur readers. No doubt, this is cool stuff; and I believe there’s more to come as research ensues. Peace to you, Patricia, and thanks for stopping by…

  2. Avatar

    That is really really cool. So fascinating. I never cease to learn something new from you Bill. Exciting too – to think that something as simple as eating a yogurt can help with a disorder. Love that…. Thanks again, Bill. I will be back.

    • Avatar

      Hey Leslie! Glad you continue to come back, and will continue to do so. Yeah, that learning thing. Happy to facilitate. Probiotics – fascinating stuff. And I really think there’s more to come. Take care of yourself, k?

  3. Avatar

    This is great stuff, Bill. I like the idea that this new area of research may help people suffering from depression. I’m always learning here. Thanks!

    • Avatar

      More than welcome, Cathy. Definitely a learnin’ thing here. Come on back…

  4. Avatar

    Very cool, I’d agree. And never ceases to amaze me how as my friend Angelo Copolla says, “We’re at the intersection of scientific evidence and evolutionary clues left by our ancestors.” The gut biome is a brave new frontier for harvesting answers and you’ve laid it out here masterfully, as ever. From antibiotics and our mad quest for an aseptic environment to hey, wait a minute, maybe The Wizard knew what She was doing creating this concept of symbiosis and homeostasis. Here’s to all of us finding that collaborative balance–once again. Thank you, Bill for staying out there on the cutting edge while remaining so grounded.

    • Avatar

      Hey, Herby – what a nice comment. Thank you. Your contributions are always so fresh and meaningful. And here’s to our collective gut. I believe the revelations will be significant and healing…

  5. Avatar

    I’ve just started hearing / reading about this myself and YOU have made it thoroughly understandable. You have quite a talent for taking the complex and break it down so the layperson can understand. I love this whole train of research and wouldn’t it be amazing if this comes true! “This intriguing new area of research may open new possibilities for the treatment of depression.” Thanks for brining this to our attention, Bill!

    • Avatar

      Great hearing from you again, Lisa. Thanks for the compliment – I enjoy breaking down complex stuff so all can understand and benefit. Yeah, imagine the relief as specific psychobiotics are identified and made available. Truly, we can’t rely solely upon antidepressants for resolution. Thank you for continuing to visit…


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