Psychobiotics: How to Improve Mental Health Without Medication
We all want to start the New Year off on the right foot, and incorporating habits to improve our mental health can be one of the best ways to do just that.
Throughout the pandemic, anxiety and depression rates shot up to record highs. Many people who didn’t experience either prior to the pandemic started having symptoms and are likely wondering how to improve their mental health without medications.
While some people may need medications, others may not. Talking with your medical professional about the best option for you is crucial to your mental and physical well-being.
Our biggest tip here is to focus on improving your gut health.
Now you might be asking…
What does gut health have to do with mental health?
Well, your gut is sometimes referred to as your second brain. You see, your gut contains an entire world of living bacteria and other microbes. They work harmoniously to keep your gut healthy which also keeps the rest of your body (including your brain) healthy, too.
There are several different ways that your gut is able to affect your brain.
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis
Your HPA axis communicates with your gut and brain via hormones. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are both in your brain and work alongside your endocrine system. Your adrenal glands sit atop your kidneys and communicate with your brain through these hormones.
The HPA axis deals with stress regulation and when your body is stressed out this is the system that kicks on your fight or flight response. If this is ignited you’ll often feel anxious.
Recent changes within our lifestyles because of COVID-19 have been stressful and have kicked this system into high gear. Your gut is able to affect this axis via gut peptides that deal with the enteroendocrine system. These peptides are able to stimulate the adrenal cortex and start the entire process.
About 90% of your serotonin is housed in your gut. Serotonin is another factor that can ignite your HPA axis to send signals to your brain. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in mood stabilization especially in cases of mood disorders or depression.
However, if this system is turned on for too long it causes inflammation throughout your body which can cause damage to your organs.
Your Gut Microbes Themselves
Your gut microbes, when in balance, help your body to maintain homeostasis. However, a few things can go wrong in your gut for them to start causing problems like inflammation. Your microflora help to control and mediate inflammation by controlling different hormones and proteins.
Cytokines are one of the most important proteins regulated by your gut microbes since they are what ignite the inflammatory response. By controlling these inflammatory responses and hormones your gut microbes can significantly alter your mental status — which is why keeping them in check is so important.
All of the different things your gut microbes can affect will have a hand in your brain and mental health.
Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA)
SCFAs are a byproduct of your gut microbes fermenting foods that your stomach can’t digest with its typical methods of digestion. The fermentation process allows these byproducts to be accessed from our foods we normally wouldn’t be able to access.
Postbiotics including propionate, butyrate, and acetate, all fall under SCFAs. They all have specific actions throughout your body to help improve your health. SCFAs are able to cross your blood-brain barrier to have direct effects on your brain chemistry. SCFAs are also able to affect your endocrine system because they act similarly to hormones.
As the SCFA are released from your gut eating certain foods can help to release more SCFA allowing your body to heal your mental health.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerves are the 10th and longest cranial nerve. It runs from your brain down through your body to your abdomen, making the vagus nerve the most direct physical link from the gut to the brain.
The vagus nerve has been studied in use for treating conditions like depression, pain, and epilepsy. Studies have shown that medications like antidepressants and anxiolytics have effects on the vagus nerve.
Certain bacteria from the gut like Campylobacter jejuni, cause anxiety by its effects on the vagus nerve.
All of these pathways allow your gut to influence your brain and the chemistry within it. They’re all a part of your psychobiome.
What is the Psychobiome and What Does it Do?
The psychobiome is the name for how your gut microbiome affects your mind through immune, endocrine, and metabolic signaling. The psychobiome is affected by all of the pathways we mentioned above.
The psychobiome shows us a new pathway for how we can modulate different mental disorders and many studies have shown how manipulating the gut microbiota can help with conditions like autism, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.
Researchers are now looking at specific ways they can improve mental health conditions by starting in the gut with psychobiotics. Though the research is fairly new, it seems promising.
Using Psychobiotics for Better Mental Health
Psychobiotics are foods or supplements used to alter the brain via gut modulation. This was originally exclusive to probiotics but is now branching into other gut-altering substances like prebiotics among others.
Supplementation is easier to run tests on since they have controlled dosages compared to foods. The composition of foods can change based on the climate, soil, weather, stage of ripeness when harvested, and other factors that dictate the quality of the food.
The main way that psychobiotics help to alter the chemistry in the brain is by reducing the amount of inflammation that the body is experiencing. We know based on most studies that an imbalance of the microbiome can lead to mental disorders. Our microbiomes are shaped from when we are in the womb and if they don’t develop properly we are at risk for health problems.
By creating balance within our microbiome we are able to balance out these problems. So choosing healthier foods and making sure we get all the vital minerals and nutrients helps our body to maintain a healthy status including in our brains.
Adding probiotics (doctor approved) and prebiotics into our routines can help to improve our gut health and alter our mental states so we don’t have to deal with such drastic levels of anxiety and depression.
However, we are not saying this is a cure-all. If your doctor has put you on medication continue taking that. It’s worth asking if incorporating psychobiotics could be a method of care for your particular case. If you need help, never feel bad reaching out for it.
If you have serious depression or suicidal ideations call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-8255. Someone is always there to listen and help you through your problems.
If you’d like to learn more about the gut-brain axis check out some of our other articles on the topic:
How to Hack Your Anxiety and Depression Through Your Gut
The Science Behind How Your Gut Microbes Influence Your Mind