If you have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), you know its difficult to get a definitive diagnosis. Confusingly, its symptoms resemble many other health conditions and there’s no single test for identifying it. You also know its symptoms seriously interfere with living your life as you’d like.
The principal characteristic of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is extreme fatigue. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity but doesn’t lessen with rest. CFS is also sometimes referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID).
People with CFS – and other energy-sapping chronic conditions as well – often use Spoon Theory to describe their experience of being chronically exhausted and the limitations that imposes on their lives. Spoon Theory is a clever metaphor created by Christine Miserandino, a woman with both lupus and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, to explain to friends and family what it’s like to have limited and unreliable energy. (MEpedia, 2017).
Lupus, by the way, is a chronic autoimmune disease “in which the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. Symptoms include inflammation, swelling, and damage to the joints, skin, kidneys, blood, heart, and lungs.” (Brazier, 2018)
There’s still ongoing discussion about whether CFS is also an inflammatory, autoimmune condition. Considerable research indicates that chronic low level inflammation in the body leads to the constellation of symptoms described as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (Dellwo, 2018 A)
This is my shorthand description of how autoimmune conditions and diseases develop:
Chronic imbalance in the contents of the gut microbiome (gut dysbiosis) -–> leaky gut -–> chronic low level inflammation in the body, which eventually -–> one or more autoimmune diseases
Autoimmune diseases develop when the body’s immune system produces an inappropriate immune response against its own tissues. Because the vast majority of our immune system (70-80%) is located in the composition of our gut microbiome, this is where we need to focus to understand how we come to develop an autoimmune disease (probably more than one) and also how to reverse these types of diseases.
When the immune system stops recognizing as “self” something that’s a normal constituent of the body, it starts producing autoimmune antibodies that attack the body’s own cells, tissues and/or organs. This produces chronic inflammation that damages these body parts and leads to full blown autoimmune diseases.
A MORE THOROUGH EXPLANATION OF CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME
Michael B. VanElzakker, PhD
Researcher Michael B. VanElzakker, now a neuroscientist affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Tufts University, has proposed a more specific explanation for how Chronic Fatigue Syndrome develops.
In the 2013 paper he pointed out that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome researchers mostly agree that CFS symptoms seem to reflect an intense, ongoing immune response, possibly due to a viral infection. They therefore were focusing their research on trying to uncover the specific pathogenic agent in plasma and blood cells responsible for the syndrome – without success. (HHV-6 Foundation, 2018)
Instead, VanElzakker proposed that CFS develops from an infection of the vagus nerve.
Herpesvirus infections of the trigeminal nerve cause shingles. Do human herpesvirus infections of the vagus nerve cause chronic fatigue syndrome?
“When immune cells of otherwise healthy individuals detect any peripheral infection, they release proinflammatory cytokines. Chemoreceptors of the sensory vagus nerve detect these localized proinflammatory cytokines, and send a signal to the brain to initiate sickness behavior. Sickness behavior is an involuntary response that includes fatigue, fever, myalgia, depression, and other symptoms that overlap with CFS.”
His Vagus Nerve Infection hypothesis of CFS contends that the syndrome’s cluster of symptoms are “a pathologically exaggerated version of normal sickness behavior that can occur when sensory vagal ganglia or paraganglia are themselves infected with any virus or bacteria.
“Drawing upon relevant findings from the neuropathic pain literature, I explain how pathogen-activated glial cells can bombard the sensory vagus nerve with proinflammatory cytokines and other neuroexcitatory substances, initiating an exaggerated and intractable sickness behavior signal.”
Following this new hypothesis, it’s possible any pathogenic infection of the vagus nerve could cause CFS, resolving the ongoing controversy about identifying a single pathogen.
VanElzakker’s hypothesis integrates two of the most important actors in CFS, the autonomic nervous system and the immune system, offering an explanation of what causes the brain to receive a non-stop stream of messages instructing it essentially to shut down the body by producing fatigue, pain and other disabling symptoms. It proposes that “nerve loving viruses trigger a difficult to detect immune response which produces the fatigue and other symptoms present in chronic fatigue syndrome.” (Cohen, 2019)
The VNIH focuses on sensory nerves, “an increasingly hot topic in ME/CFS/FM” and coincides with an established model of fibromyalgia. If this hypothesis is correct, it will change how Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is viewed, researched and treated. (Johnson, 2013)
VanElzakker’s work on CFS has zeroed in on the human herpes viruses – with the human herpes virus 6 (HHV-6) at the top of his list of suspects. (HHV-6 Foundation, 2018)
Histological slide of the human herpes virus-6 (HHV-6)showing infected cells
The following two paragraphs from the HHV-6 Foundation’s article CFS: a herpesvirus infection of the vagus nerve? discuss, in fairly technical terms, VanElzakker’s theory of how a human herpesvirus-6 infection of the sensory vagal ganglia or paraganglia could produce the intense symptoms found in people with Chronic Fatigue:
“During infection, the sensory vagus nerve sends a signal to the brain to initiate “sickness behavior,” an involuntary response characterized by fatigue, fever, myalgia, depression, and other symptoms that are often observed in patients with CFS. However, VanElzakker proposes that when sensory vagal ganglia or paraganglia are themselves infected with any virus or bacteria, these symptoms would be exaggerated. He notes that many of the symptoms of sickness behavior (such as fatigue, sleep changes, myalgia, cognitive impairment, depression and zinc depletion) are also mediated by proinflammatory cytokines and observed in CFS.
“Herpesviruses and certain intracellular bacteria establish latency in the vagus nerve and reactivate during periods of stress or illness, causing the release of proinflammatory cytokines. HHV-6 is a highly neurotropic virus and potent inducer of cytokines such as IL-6 and NFkB, which many groups have proposed as an etiological theory for the role of HHV-6 in neurological conditions such as seizures and epilepsy. If this low-level “chronic” infection is localized to the vagus nerve it would be undetectable in the plasma, but could be demonstrated through analyzing tissue biopsies of the vagus nerve, VanElzakker suggests. HHV-6 is well-known for invading the hippocampus and other parts of the limbic system, and also establishes residence in the human sensory ganglia along with other neurotropic herpesviruses including HSV-1 and VZV.” (HHV-6 Foundation, 2018)
THE VAGUS NERVE
The vagus nerve, historically called the pneumogastric nerve, is the 10th cranial nerve and interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The vagus nerves are paired but are normally referred to in the singular. It’s the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system in the human body. (Wikipedia, 2019)
As the two branches of the vagus nerve make their way between the brain and the gut, they connect to every organ they pass along the way.
THE VAGUS NERVE & THE GUT MICROBIOME CONNECTION
I’ve been intrigued by the vagus nerve since discovering it’s a key player in the Gut/Brain Axis – the constant, two-way communication taking place between our brains and our guts.
“Maybe you’re used to thinking of the brain in your head as your only brain – but your body actually has TWO BRAINS: In fact, the ‘brain’ in your gut does a lot more than digest your food. While this brain doesn’t produce thoughts, it contains its own independent nervous system along with more neurotransmitters and serotonin than the brain in your head.
“Sheaths of neurons are embedded in the walls of the entire alimentary canal. Technically known as the enteric nervous system, this gut brain measures about 9 meters (29.5 feet) from esophagus to anus and contains about 100 million neurons, more neurons than exist in either the spinal cord or the entire peripheral nervous system. Equipped with its own reflexes and senses, this second brain can control gut behavior independently of the brain. Here’s a single example to give you an idea of the importance of the gut brain for the entire body: About 90% of the fibers in the vagus nerve, the largest of the visceral nerves, carry information FROM the gut TO the brain – but not the other way around.” (Hardin 2015)
“During vertebrate embryonic development a single clump of fetal tissue divides to grow into the gut and the brain. One section becomes the central nervous system (the brain and spinal nerves) while another migrates lower in the body to create the enteric nervous systemembedded in the sheaths of tissue lining the espohagus, stomach, small intestine and colon.
“The two separate nervous systems connect via the vagus nerve running from the brain stem into the abdomen. This major trunk line is one of the longest nerves in the body. The gut and the brain are constantly signaling each other, back and forth, along the vagus nerve and also via chemicals released by the gut and transported to the brain. When one brain gets upset, the other becomes upset too. They work in conjunction with each other along the Gut-Brain Axis, each heavily influencing the other.” (Hardin, 2015)
HEALING VAGUS NERVE INFECTION WITH ESSENTIAL OILS
Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils, an author, speaker, nutritional therapist and a leading international authority on essential oils. These are her strategies for how to heal vagus nerve infections with essential oils:
Vagus nerve stimulation – Parasympathetic essential oil blend was designed to activate the vagus nerve to trigger the parasympathetic response. Parasympathetic is formulated with the highly stimulatory clove oil and works much like more invasive techniques such as Transcutaneous Vagal Nerve Stimulation by stimulating the Vagus Nerve near the outer ear and allowing action potentials to be sent down the nerve to stimulate the normal anti-inflammatory reflex of the Vagus Nerve along with helping to regulate exaggerated signaling that contributes to sickness behavior and excessive fatigue and pain related symptoms…. To stimulate the vagus nerve, apply 1 drop of Parasympathetic™ to the vagal nerve (behind ear lobe, on mastoid bone on the neck).
Glial cell inhibitors can be used to calm the immune activation of glial cells in your brain. Natural plants remedies, like essential oils, have been proven to suppress microglial activation and neuronal damage in research such as “Inhibitors of microglial neurotoxicity: focus on natural products” and “Development of a neuroprotective potential algorithm for medicinal plants”.
Essential oils are especially powerful as glial cell inhibitors as they unique chemistry (super small, fat soluble molecules), allows them to easily cross the blood brain barrier and suppress glial cell activation. Research has found that Cinnamon Bark is highly effective at inhibiting microglial activation. According to the research, Cinnamon Bark “may recede neuroinflammation by suppressing microglial activation and play a key role in neuroprotection”. Immune Support™ oil is high in levels of cinnamon and can be topically applied to the bottom of the feet or around the neck (dilute before applying to the neck) to help inhibit glial cells from over-activating the vagus nerve. Anti Inflammatory™ also helps to turn off the inflammatory response in the brain and inhibit an over-active glial cell response. To apply, place one drop one the base of the skull or place a drop of Anti Inflammatory™ oil on your fingertip, and rub fingers together to disperse oil. Take your fingers once over the entire scalp.
Antiviral treatments: Essential oils are known for their anti-viral properties.
More specifically, research studies have found that essential oils ‘inactivate’ viruses in one of two ways: by inhibiting their ability to replicate and/or inhibiting viruses’ ability to fuse to cell walls and infect a host cell.
Essential oils have also been shown to positively support our own immune system, enhancing its ability to ward off pathogens and help modulate your immune system.
Anti viral blends like Immune Support™ can be applied 2- 3 times daily on the throat (diluted) or the bottom of the feet, or Thymus™ can be used stimulate immune function against infections, viruses and bacteria by apply 2-3 drops on the thymus (on breastbone at third rib) in a clockwise motion for 30 seconds and then stimulate the thymus by gently tapping. Finally, supporting your lymphatic system with Lymph™ can help supports your immune response by both bringing nutrients to and helping to clear toxins and waste from every cell in the body.
– (Cohen, 2019)
My take away from all this:
Since it’s known that –
Chronic imbalance in the contents of the gut microbiome (gut dysbiosis) -–> leaky gut -–> chronic low level inflammation in the body, which eventually -–> one or more autoimmune diseases
– avoiding a vagal nerve infection and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is yet another good reason to get and keep your gut microbiome in good balance.
Much research is now being done on the gut-brain axis – the biochemical and neuronal communication that’s constantly taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. The gut-brain axis works in both directions – from gut to brain and brain to gut – and affects GI functioning as well as hormones, immunity, mood, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.
That’s all pretty amazing in itself but how’s this for mind blowing?
A new study shows that the composition of a person’s gut microbiome can be improved through electromagnetic brain stimulation – leading to weight loss. The technique is called deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) and is non-invasive.
Research has found that an imbalance in the mix of beneficial and harmful micro-organisms inhabiting the gut microbiome affects the brain’s signals for hunger and satiety (fullness), leading to obesity.
Building on that, a team of researchers at the IRCCS Policlinico San Donato and the University of Milan worked jointly to examine how dTMS could improve the make up of obese subjects’ gut microbiomes, causing them to lose weight.
“This study expands on the researchers’ previous finding that dTMS reduced food cravings and induced weight loss in obese individuals. Unlike deep brain stimulation, dTMS does not need an operation or implantation of electrodes. Instead, an electromagnetic coil is placed on the scalp and sends magnetic pulses to stimulate specific deep regions of the brain. Currently approved in the U.S. for treating major depression, dTMS is being studied in some countries for the treatment of other neuropsychiatric disorders, especially addiction.” (Endocrine Society, 2017)
By the end of the five weeks of treatment, the people who’d received dTMS lost over 3% of their body weight and more than 4% of their fat, significantly more than the control subjects.
The most interesting finding: At the end of the five week study, stool sample analysis of the dTMS-treated subjects showed the quantities of several beneficial bacterial species possessing anti-inflammatory properties in their gut microbiomes had also greatly increased. And more good news: The dTMS-treated subjects had more abundant bacterial species correlated with improvements in metabolic and hormonal functions, including glucose, insulin, some pituitary hormones, and norepinephrine.
“These changes suggest a beneficial effect of dTMS on both weight loss and change in microbiota composition,” Livio Luzi, MD, head of the research team, said. “Our research shows the innovative ability of dTMS in exerting anti-obesity effects through alteration of the gut-brain axis.” (Endocrine Society, 2017)
In recent years, transcranial magnetic stimulation has also shown promise as a treatment for a variety of health problems, including major depression, migraines, and boosting memory function. (Haridy, 2017)
Many thanks to Leni Fuhrman for sending me the Haridy article about this fascinating work.
It may strain the imagination to hear that several pounds of organisms live inside your gastrointestinal tract and that they are in constant communication with your brain, but it’s true. Actually, the communication is two way – gut to brain and brain to gut – and operates via biochemical signaling. This process is called the gut-brain axis. The gut microbiome is so so important to the body’s functioning it’s often now referred to as our second brain.
Recent research has also demonstrated that our mood is greatly affected by certain bacteria living in our gut microbiome. These bacteria profoundly influence how anxious or depressed we are. Having lots of friendly probiotic bacteria in there exerts anxiety-reducing and antidepressant effects on our emotions and physical bodies.
Fortunately for us, there is an emerging field of neuroscience called psychobiotics that is studying how changing the bacterial composition in the gut affects the brain. (Atlay, 2016)
Psychobiotics researchers are beginning to identify which probiotics have psychotropic (mind-altering) effects – boosting mood and cognitive function; decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Functional Medicine doc Kelly Brogan, along with numerous others, is convinced that mood disorders and many other psychiatric problems are the result of imbalances and chronic inflammation in the gut microbiome and that psychobiotics will become the treatment of choice for mood disorders and will also be used to prevent them. She wrote:
“For two decades now, pioneering researchers have been substantiating inflammatory models of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Research has focused on markers that indicate immune distress in an important subset of patients, many of whom are labeled “treatment resistant.” Through this body of literature, we have identified that depression can be induced, in animals and in humans through inflammatory agents, that it is correlated with blood levels of inflammatory markers, in a linear way (more markers = worse depression), and that symptoms can be reversed through pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories.” (Brogan, 2014)
The well respected scientists who authored an article called Psychobiotics and the Manipulation of Bacteria–Gut–Brain Signals published a few months ago in Trends in Neurosciences believe that prebiotics (nondigestible plant fibers that nourish our probiotics) should also be included as actors in the gut-brain communication process and propose the diagram below to show how it all works (Sarkar, 2016):
Systems-Level Overview of Psychobiotic Action
If you’re interested in a deeper understanding of how the process works, take a look at this explanation of the diagram provided by the authors:
“Probiotics directly introduce beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria into the gut. Prebiotics (e.g., galacto-oligosaccharides) support the growth of such bacteria. SCFAs and gut hormones: Both probiotics and prebiotics increase production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which interact with gut mucosal enteroendocrine cells and catalyse the release of gut hormones such as cholecystokinin (CCK), peptide tyrosine tyrosine (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide- 1 (GLP-1). Prebiotics may have stronger effects in this regard in comparison to probiotics. SCFAs and gut hormones enter circulation and can migrate into the central nervous system. Gut hormones are also secreted by tissues other than enteroendocrine cells. Neurotransmitters: psychobiotics enhance neurotransmitter production in the gut, including dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT), noradrenaline (NA), and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which likely modulate neurotransmission in the proximal synapses of the enteric nervous system. Vagal connections: the vagus nerve synapses on enteric neurons and enables gut–brain communication. Stress, barrier function, and cytokines: barrier dysfunction is exacerbated through stress-induced glucocorticoid exposure. This enables migration of bacteria with pro-inflammatory components, increasing inflammation directly and also triggering a rise in pro-inflammatory cytokines via the immunogenic response. These cytokines impair the integrity of the blood–brain barrier and permit access to potentially pathogenic or inflammatory elements. Pro-inflammatory cytokines (red circles) also reduce the integrity of the gut barrier. Psychobiotic action restores gut barrier function and decreases circulating concentrations of glucocorticoids and pro-inflammatory cytokines. They also increase concentrations of anti-inflammatory cytokines (blue circles), which enhance integrity of the blood–brain barrier, the gut barrier, and reduce overall inflammation. Cytokines clustering at the brain represent cytokine interaction with the blood–brain barrier. Central lymphatic vessels: cytokines may interact more directly with the brain than previously appreciated through the recently discovered central lymphatic vessels.” (Sarkar, 2016)
THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS AND MOOD
The gut microbiome and the brain, working together via the gut-brain axis, are jointly responsible for maintaining health in the body – including mental health. If a body has an unbalanced gut microbiome containing too few or unbalanced probiotics and prebiotics (dysbiosis) – because its owner consumes a nutritionally impoverished diet, has taken antibiotics that have killed off many probiotics in the gut, has been exposed to toxins, and/or isn’t doing a good job managing stress, the body’s intestinal lining may become too porous (a condition called leaky gut), creating chronic inflammation in the body and eventually a series of autoimmune diseases – and apparently mood disorders too.
In the diagram above from the Sarkar article, blue arrows indicate psychobiotic processes and effects, while red arrows indicate processes associated with leaky gut and chronic inflammation.
RESEARCH FINDINGS ON PSYCHOBIOTICS FOR ANXIETY & DEPRESSION
Here are some intriguing results from research studies on probiotics’ and prebiotics’ effects on anxiety and depression:
A 30-day human study found these two probiotics helpful for reducing anxiety as compared to a placebo (Sarkar, 2016)
Lactobacillus helveticus R0052
A mixture of these probiotics compared to a placebo, taken for four weeks, substantially reduced depression in human subjects (Sarkar, 2016)
Bifidobacterium bifidum W23
Bifidobacterium lactis W52
Lactobacillus acidophilus W37
Lactobacillus brevis W63
Lactobacillus casei W56
Lactobacillus salivarius W24
Lactococcus lactis W19 and W58
In a study of academic stress, healthy medical students took either this probiotic or a placebo for eight weeks before an exam. The day before the exam, plasma cortisol was substantially lower in the probiotic group compared to the placebo group. (Sarkar, 2016):
Lactobacillus casei Shirota
In another study, student athletes who were given this probiotic had elevated mood and reduced natural killer cell activity after strenuous exercise, relative to placebo:
Lactobacillus gasseri OLL2809 LG2809
When the probiotic was taken along with this protein in milk,
the students also experienced less fatigue. (Sarkar, 2016)
Irritable bowel syndrome is known to be associated with disturbances in the gut-brain axis and composition of the gut microbiome. IBS is a chronic inflammatory condition and is often accompanied by anxiety and depression. After human study participants with IBS consumed this probiotic, their level of inflammation was reduced (as measured by the ratio of interleukin-10 to interleukin-12), compared to those who took a placebo (Sarkar, 2016):
Bifidobacterium infantis 35624
In a clinical trial of people with major depressive disorder, patients were given these probiotics:
Lactobacillus acidophilus (2 billion CFUs)
Lactobacillus casei (2 billion CFUs)
Bifidobacterium bifidum (2 billion CFUs)
Compared with placebo, the people who took the probiotics were less depressed at the end of the eight week study and also had significant decreases in systemic inflammation, reduced insulin resistance, and a significant rise in glutathione (the body’s master anti-oxidant). (University Health News, 2016)
A study looking at the effects of these probiotics (given as Probio’Stick®) on anxiety, depression, stress, and coping strategies in healthy human volunteers found a reduction of psychological distress (particularly depression, anger/hostility, and anxiety) and improved problem solving ability at the end of the 30 day study (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus helveticus R0052
Bifidobacterium longum R0175
Harrington states, “For anyone experiencing anxiety and/or depression, regular supplementation with this probiotic combination seems a natural and worthwhile practice. It is conceivable that such supplementation could reduce reliance on prescription medications and deliver freedom from the burdens of these common mental illnesses.” (Harrington, 2016)
Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome were given either this probiotic or a placebo daily for two months. The people who took the probiotic experienced a significant decrease in anxiety (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota (24 billion colony forming units)
Animal studies have shown that this probiotic reduces depression by increasing dopamine and serotonin. This same probiotic decreased cortisol and increased dopamine and serotonin, normalizing the stress response system in depressed mice subjected to early-life stress (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus plantarum strain PS128
These two probiotics have been shown to reduce anxiety-like behavior and improve performance on cognitive tests in anxious mice (University Health News, 2016):
Bifidobacterium longum 1714
Bifidobacterium breve 1205
The same probiotic shown to help people with chronic fatigue syndrome has also been shown to help humans and lab animals undergoing other kinds of stress. This probiotic (consumed as kefir, a fermented milk drink that’s loaded with a variety of probiotics) prevented stress-related cortisol increases and raised serotonin levels in stressed medical students. The kefir also decreased stress-related physical symptoms such as abdominal pain and colds (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota
Animal studies have also identified other probiotics that reduce stress-related depression and anxiety by affecting serotonin, cortisol, and other neuroactive compounds. These two, in combination, normalized anxious behaviors along with learning and memory impairments in immune-deficient rats (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 combined with Lactobacillus rhamnosus R0011
This probiotic was more effective than the SSRI citalopram (Celexa) in reducing stress-induced anxiety, depression, and cognitive dysfunction in rats. It lowered their cortisol and restored their serotonin and other brain neurochemical levels back to normal (University Health News, 2016):
Lactobacillus helveticus NS8
Prebiotics, like probiotics, have also been identified as regulators of mood and brain function. A recent study found that this prebiotic decreased the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol and improved emotional processing and lowered anxiety in healthy human volunteers (University Health News, 2016):
A study of people with IBS, who typically have decreased microbial diversity in their gut microbiomes and often suffer from anxiety, found that daily consumption of this prebiotic mixture for four weeks reduced their anxiety (University Health News, 2016):
a galactooligosaccharide-containing prebiotic mixture in powder form
An informative article called 10 Best Probiotics For Depression & Anxiety: Gut-Brain Axis Modification names the following as the most helpful probiotics for mood regulation, describes their functions in the body, presents relevant research results from studies in which they were used as psychobiotics, and recommends some specific probiotic products. The first nine in the list are probiotics; the 10th is a prebiotic:
The article also discusses pathogenic bacteria that may CAUSE anxiety and depression:
Interestingly, these pathogenic bacteria have also been found to be associated with other serious physical problems, including GI disease, stress-induced memory dysfunction, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, and heart valve damage.
COMMERCIAL PSYCHOBIOTIC SUPPLEMENTS
If your interest in the relationship between the probiotics in your gut microbiome and your mood has been piqued, perhaps you want to pick out one or more of the probiotics mentioned above to experiment with. Start with the one that interests you most and take it for a month so it has a chance to colonize in your gut.
If deliberately encouraging a strain of bacteria to colonize your gut sounds too much like a scary science fiction movie, please remember that we’re talking about GOOD (probiotic) bacteria, ones that create health in the body, not HARMFUL (pathologic) bacteria that create illness.
Here are a few commercially available probiotic supplements that provide psychobiotic and other benefits:
This supplement contains 3 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of a blend of two probiotic strains demonstrated to improve mood, reduce perceived stress, and promote relaxation in humans.
Lactobacillus Helveticas strain R0052
Bifid bacterium longum strain R0175
“Research suggests specific probiotics positively influence biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system- resulting in positive effects on mood.” (Amazon.com, 2017)
Contains milk and soybeans. The ingredients may be from GMO sources.
Life Extension says this about the GMO issue:
“Q. Should I be concerned with the usage of genetically modified plants (GMOs)?
“A. Soybeans are an example of a crop that has used extensive genetic engineering to increase crop yield. The reality is that soybean oil and soy lecithin are highly processed derivatives of soy … far removed from their soy origin. Genetic modification doesn’t alter the entire plant… only a specific gene. Thus, specific molecules like soy lecithin are the same whether they come from a GMO or non-GMO soy source. However, due to our sensitivity to customer concerns, products with corn and soy-based active ingredients are in process of having the labels updated to list when soy and corn-derived active ingredients have been certified to be from non-GM food crops. As the labels are updated the information will be transferred to the product descriptions on our website and directory. Currently Life Extension already offers several premium quality non-GMO soy isoflavone extract products.” (Life Extension, 2017)
At time of manufacture, contains 5 billion Colony Forming Units per BIO-tract pearl, equivalent to 75 billion CFU. Contains a minimum of 1.5 CFU at time of expiration date.
The 15 Group, B. (2015). biotic strains in this supplement are:
Lactobacillus plantarum – Secretes the oxidant hydrogen peroxide which acts as a weapon to protect your body and must be present for your immune system to function correctly. Creates a healthy barrier in your colon and helps lower luminal pH, creating an unfavorable environment for the growth of pathogens including molds, yeasts and bacteria.
Lactobacillus fermentum – highly antimicrobial and antioxidative. Helps inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, yeast and other pathogens and has demonstrated clinical efficacy within immune health.
Lactobacillus acidophilus – Creates a fortress of good colonies that helps keep unwanted organisms out of your gut. Studies show that L. acidophilus helps to reduce occasional diarrhea and enhances your immune system and may help to reduce cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that those taking L. acidophilus experienced significantly more relief from their gastrointestinal discomfort than did those taking a placebo.
Bifidobacterium Infantis – Has been shown to reduce the major symptoms of GI disorders, including diarrhea, flatulence, bloating, cramping and constipation. It is particularly popular as a means of combating Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and has been shown to improve digestion and the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients.
Lactobacillus casei – Along with L. Acidolphilus, converts lactose into lactic acid, helping those who are lactose intolerant. Helps to encourage the growth of other beneficial bacteria.
Bifidobacterium longum – Assists in breaking down carbohydrates and fighting free radicals. Provides potent antioxidant support and helps reduce the effects of seasonal allergens.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus – Helps reduce occurrences of traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning.
Bifidobacteriumlactis – Helps decrease H. pylori (a bacterium associated with the majority of stomach ulcers) and helps the production of the front line cells in your immune system.
Lactobacillus reuteri – Improves cholesterol levels, reduces H. plyori, protects female urinary tract and vaginal health and aids infants’ GI health.
Lactobacillus salivarius – Helps with GI problems (especially diarrhea caused by antibiotics), helps lactose-intolerant people digest dairy. It may lower cholesterol and blood pressure, maintain dental health, help with IBS, and boost the immune system.
Lactobacillus paracasei – Is key for digestive function, boosts the immune system, and energy levels, resolves infant diarrhea. It may help fight infections and relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Lactobacillus gasseri – May speed up metabolism and encourage weight loss, protect against harmful organisms, lower cholesterol, reduce allergic response, ease symptoms of asthma in children, and lessen menstrual pain in women with endometriosis.
Bifidobacterium bifidum – Protects the intestinal lining from damage from toxins and pathological germs. Produces important vitamins like B12, biotin, and K2. Helps digest sugar and reduces incidence of colds and flu.
Bifidobacterium breve – Protects colon function, alleviates constipation, reduces gas and diarrhea. Stimulates the immune system, inhibits E. coli and suppresses the fungus Candida. Ferments sugars and produces acetic and lactic acids. Helps digest plant fibers typically thought of as undigestible. May reduce intestinal irritation and allergic responses.
Streptococcus thermopholus – Breaks down lactose into lactic acid and helps boost the immune system. May lower the risk of colon cancer. May protect intestinal tissues from irritation during chemotherapy . Correlates with better growth in children.
plus 25 mg of prebiotic:
This supplement is vegetarian; non-GMO; and free of yeast, lactose, soy, iron, gluten, wheat, nuts, preservatives, sugar, and artificial colors or flavors.
– Information provided by Hyperbiotics on Amazon.com (2017), Dr Edward Group at Global Healing Center (2015A-F), and Examine.com (2011-2017).
This supplement contains a single probiotic strain:
Lactobacillus plantarum 299v
Each veggie cap contains 10 billion viable cells of L. plantarum 299v, a clinically-documented, human-origin probiotic strain that resists stomach acid and bile salts and has been found to successfully colonize the human intestinal mucosa.
This strain reduces bloating, gas and Intestinal discomfort, and supports regularity. The product is vegetarian/vegan and gluten free but contains trace amounts of soy.
This supplement also contains a single probiotic strain:
Bifidobacterium infantis 35624
align was developed by gastroenterologists to promote and support a healthy digestive system. It’s especially useful for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – sometimes called spastic colon. IBS is characterized by abdominal cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. (Amazon.com, 2017)
In the intestines of infants, B. infantis helps break down lactic acid in human breast milk.
“Adults who keep their B. infantis levels in balance enjoy better overall health, an active metabolism, and less discomfort after eating. British researchers reported it only took four weeks for women who took B. infantis to enjoy a significant improvement in their IBS symptoms. Another study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found B. infantis supports stomach health and digestion. But it does more than aid digestion. It also supports your immune system against unwanted bacterial growth in the intestines. And some strains even produce B vitamins.” (Group, 2015B)
The beneficial bacteria in BioKult are freeze dried, a process which protects them from the harsh acidic environment of the stomach so they survive to colonize the intestinal tract. Each capsule contains a minimum of 2 billion probiotic microorganisms. BioKult is gluten free, uses no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. It may contain traces of soy and milk from the growth medium of the strains. Lactose intolerant people shouldn’t have a problem with these traces of milk. BioKult is non-GMO. (Amazon.com, 2017)
Bio-Kult contains 14 probiotic strains:
Bacillus subtilis PXN 21
Bifidobacterium bifidum PXN 23
Bifidobacterium breve PXN 25
Bifidobacterium infantis PXN 27
Bifidobacterium longum PXN 30
Lactobacillus acidophilus PXN 35
Lactobacillus delbrueckii ssp. bulgaricus PXN 39
Lactobacillus casei PXN 37
Lactobacillus plantarum PXN 47
Lactobacillus rhamnosus PXN 54
Lactobacillus helveticus PXN 45
Lactobacillus salivarius PXN 57
Lactococcus lactis ssp. lactis PXN 63
Streptococcus thermophilus PXN 66
Here’s information on the probiotic strains in Bio-Kult that haven’t already been discussed:
* Bacillus subtilisis ubiquitous in soil, produces an endospore that allows it to survive the stomach’s acidity. It is beneficial to the digestive system in general and is known to improve symptoms of IBS. It suppresses the growth of harmful pathogens, strengthens the gut’s mucosal lining, and enhances the growth of other good probiotic strains. (Jockers, 2014)
B. subtilis‘s other benefits include decreasing triglycerides, LDL levels and total cholesterol; increasing immunity; fighting viruses; improving leaky gut; decreasing inflammation; decreasing diarrhea and nausea; improving dairy digestion; decreasing tooth decay; managing HIV symptoms; and fighting dyspepsia. (Jerkunica, 2009-2015)
* Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricusis one of the bacterial strains used to turn milk into yogurt and is also found in other naturally fermented foods.
*Lactobacillus helveticus provides many health benefits – including inhibition of pathogenic bacteria, anti-mutagenic and anti-tumorigenic activity, anti-hypertensive activity, immunomodulatory activity, control of diarrhea, reduction of lactose intolerance, and enhancing recovery from gut atrophy induced by malnutrition. It has also been found to improve bone mineral density and bone mineral content, calcium and bone metabolism, arterial stiffness, and blood pressure. (Swartzburg, 2009)
* Lactococcus lactis ssp. lactis, a strain of L. lactis, is used widely in cheese making as a starter culture. It’s added to milk to make a variety of cultured dairy products: sour cream, buttermilk, blue cheese, Colby, Cheddar, and cottage cheese.
L. lactic ssp. lactis protects against strep throat, respiratory and non-respiratory diseases, L. lactis also delivers antigens that stimulate mucosal immunity to non-respiratory pathogens, including HIV, HPV, and the malarial parasite. It’s related to other lactic acid bacteria, such as L. acidophilus in the intestines and S. salivarius in the mouth. (Todar, 2008-2011)
I love this: In 2010, L. lactis was named Wisconsin’s Official State Microbe!
This is another probiotic supplement in pearl form, containing 4 billion cultures. The pearls contain no gluten, lactose, wheat, soy, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, chemicals, or artificial ingredients.
About the Product
Increases the probiotic bacterial profile in the gut microbiome.
Pearls versus capsules: The Time Release Patented Technology, BioTract, allows pearls to be smaller than capsules and easier to swallow. The manufacturer says this product is 15X more effective than capsules and delivers 15X more live bacteria into the intestinal tract.
Provides relief from gas, bloating, IBS, diarrhea, constipation and other bowel discomforts.
Boosts immunity, energy and mood.
Improves vitamin absorption, which gives a big boost to your immune system.
Protects the body from yeast overgrowth and improves digestion, contributing to overall well-being and more energy.
Earth’s Pearl Probiotics support and improve healthy digestion, improving the bio-availability of nutrients from the healthy foods and supplements you are taking.
This supplement is good for yeast infections, diarrhea, gas, bloating, diverticulitis, colon issues, leaky gut, digestion issues, poor immune system, constipation, IBS, lactose intolerance, allergies, antibiotics.
This probiotic supplement is for those who can’t or don’t like swallowing capsules. Each stick contains 3 billion active cells (guaranteed to expiration date). You tear the stick open and pour its contents onto your tongue, allow the powder to dissolve, and swallow. You could also mix the powder into water or juice, even stir it into a smoothie.
Each stick contains:
Bifidobacterium longum (R0175) 3.18 x 108 CFU
Lactobacillus helveticus (R0052) 2.682 x 109 CFU
Probiotic Sticks balance the intestinal microflora and help decrease stress-related GI symptoms – such as bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. They are micro-encapsulated and gastro-protected. The powder is a red plum flavor. (Amazon.com, 2017)
An Amazon customer reported, “It is the best probiotic I have ever used. It really helps with anxiety.”
These are only a few of the probiotic supplements on the market. Some research should help you find one that’s high quality and addresses your health issues.
TIPS FOR CHOOSING A PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT
When selecting probiotic supplements, you want to make sure you’re getting something that your body can use. Many probiotic supplements on the market may start with billions of CFUs of various bacteria but they’ve died by the time you get them or they perish in the acidic environment of your stomach as they pass through on their way to your intestines (where you need them) and won’t do you any good. Do some research before purchasing. In general, try to get the highest quality supplements you can afford.
Dr David Williams proposes these four criteria for evaluating a probiotic supplement (Williams, 2017):
The specific probiotic strains included
The product’s packaging and delivery system
Product expiration dates
I would add to his list:
Free of other common allergens
No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
Is able to survive stomach acid to reach the intestines
Kefir is a fermented drink that’s loaded with probiotic bacteria, including many of the ones discussed above that have been found effective for anxiety and depression. It can be made from any type of milk – usually cow, goat or sheep, and also from coconut water, juices, rice, soy – even plain water. It has impressive medicinal benefits for healing leaky gut and can be given to newborns to improve their gut microbiomes. It also contains high levels of Vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium and other essential minerals, Vitamin K2, biotin, folate, and digestive enzymes. The fermentation process breaks down the lactose in milk, rendering kefirs 99% lactose-free, so they’re tolerated well even by those who are lactose intolerant.
Kefir has been consumed for thousands of years for its numerous health benefits.
Lifeway organic plain kefir is an example of a tasty commercial kefir that’s widely available. Its culture contains 15-20 billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs) of live and active kefir cultures per cup. Kefir cultures include these probiotics:
See these resources for more information on the probiotic superfood kefir:
Adding lacto-fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles to your daily diet will provide a good dose of probiotics. If you’re buying commercial versions of these foods, be aware that ‘pickled’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fermented. Most pickles and pickled foods are made with vinegar and provide NO probiotic benefits. They’re also usually made with lots of processed salt, which isn’t good for us. Real, lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, etc contain no vinegar. Instead, they are brined with water and salt, and are sold refrigerated because the culture in the jar is alive with probiotics that would be killed if exposed to heat .
EXAMPLE OF PICKLES MADE WITH VINEGAR
Ingredients: Pickles (Cucumbers, Salt, Calcium Chloride), Original Curing Brine, Water, Salt, Distilled White Vinegar, Lactic Acid, Potassium Sorbate as a Preservative, Natural Flavoring, Polysorbate 80
EXAMPLES OF LACTO-FERMENTED PICKLES AND SAUERKRAUT
Pickles Ingredients: Cucumbers. Artesian Well Water, Garlic, Salt, Dill, Spices
Sauerkraut Ingredients: Cabbage, Artesian Well Water, Salt
You’ll notice that the Heinz Premium Genuine Dills are made with vinegar and require a preservative. They don’t contain probiotics and are sold at room temperature.
Bubbies’ Pure Kosher Dills and Sauerkraut are full of healthy probiotics created by lacto-fermentation, contain no vinegar or chemical preservatives and are sold refrigerated. My only objections to them are that the company apparently uses processed salt in its culture and the ingredients are probably genetically modified.
A note on yogurt: The probiotics in most commercial yogurts get killed off by heat during processing. Look for yogurts that are still tangy tasting. You can also make your own.
Functional Medicine doc Kelly Brogan says in “Psychobiotics: Bacteria For Your Brain?” regarding getting your probiotics from food:
“Given how little is known about therapeutic applications of different strains, it may make sense to defer to ancestral practices that confirm the importance of probiotic exposures. In these foods such as lactofermented kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and other traditional vegetables, microbes are acting on the food, and the food is then acting on our microbes.” (Brogan, 2014)
“In the centuries before we had refrigeration or freezing, foods were often preserved by fermentation. In eating and drinking those fermented foods, we regularly ingested prebiotics and probiotics that kept our gut flora balanced and happy.
“Live, lactic acid fermentation is the simplest and usually the safest way of preserving food. Before we had refrigeration, canning and chemical preservatives, humans in every culture preserved foods by fermenting them – sauerkraut, tempeh (fermented soybeans), miso (fermented soybean paste), kimchi, dry sausages, pickles, cheeses, yogurt, kefir, sourdough bread starters, beers and wines, among others.
“We pretty much stopped eating those digestion-enhancing foods when we started relying on foods kept ”fresh” by refrigeration and other artificial means – and even worse, started eating heavily processed, essentially fake and genetically altered foods. What we gave up in turning away from fermented foods was ingesting enough of the friendly bacteria our bodies need to maintain good health, the prebiotics and probiotics created by natural fermentation. (Hardin, 2011)
“Natural fermentation develops vast amounts of lactic acid bacteria, friendly bacteria our guts need to maintain good health. Take sauerkraut for example: The numbers of different lactic acid bacteria in live sauerkraut can reach concentrations of 10 (to the 8th) to 10 (to the 9th) per gram. ( Zdenka Samish, 1963)”
When selecting probiotic supplements, you want to make sure you’re getting something that your body can use. Many probiotic supplements on the market may start with billions of CFUs of various bacteria but they’ve died by the time you get them or they perish in the acidic environment of your stomach as they pass through on their way to your intestines (where you need them) and won’t do you any good. Do some research before purchasing. In general, try to find the best supplements you can afford.
Dr David Williams proposes these four criteria for evaluating a probiotic supplement (Williams, 2017):
The specific probiotic strains included
The product’s packaging and delivery system
Product expiration dates
I would add to his list:
Free of other common allergens
No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
Is able to survive stomach acid to reach the intestines
RESOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT PSYCHOBIOTICS
“The best psychobiotics and the best dosages for those psychobiotics have yet to be determined, but a number of them used in the studies described above are commercially available in probiotic supplements. Generally, at least 10 billion CFU’s per day are recommended for most probiotics, including psychobiotics, but higher or lower amounts may also be beneficial. Just make sure to give your psychobiotic a try for at least a month before deciding whether it’s working or not.” (University Health News, 2016)
A tip from my own experience: If the dosage instructions on your new probiotic supplement recommend taking more than one/day, it would probably be wise to start with one to see how your body reacts to it, stay on that dose for a while (at least a few days, maybe even a week), then work up to the recommended dose slowly.
PSYCHOBIOTICS VS PHARMACEUTICALS
While researchers currently can’t recommend doses for these probiotics and haven’t yet tested their long-term effects, if you’re suffering from chronic anxiety and/or depression and are the sort of person who’s willing to be a pioneer, you might want to try adding them to your daily diet as an experiment and see if they help you.
I’ll point out here that the taking of prescription pharmaceuticals isn’t as scientific and safe as we’ve been led to believe.
RESOURCES FOR MORE INFORMATION ON PROBIOTICS IN GENERAL
If you’re willing, it would be helpful if you’d share information about your experiences with any of these or other psychobiotic supplements or foods. The field is still in its infancy and we can learn from each other’s experiences – what worked for you and what didn’t.
Very good news! An exciting new field of medicine is on the horizon: PSYCHOBIOTICS.
PROBIOTICS are micro-organisms that have beneficial effects on the body when consumed.
Ted Dinan, Catherine Stanton, and John Cryan, pioneering researchers in the field, define a PSYCHOBIOTIC as “a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness”. (Dinan, Stanton & Cryan, 2013)
Scientists are discovering that some probiotic micro-organisms living in our guts are also psychoactive. That is, they deliver neuroactive substances such as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin that influence the brain via the gut-brain axis.
I’d say that the field of psychobiotics in the not so distant future will be understood more broadly to include all of us, not just those with diagnosable mental illnesses. For example, we’ll be able to fine tune our anxiety levels day to day – by taking particular probiotics before events we know make us anxious (public speaking, flying, big dates, exams). And, even better, we’ll be able to AVOID depression’s deep troughs of despair and the exhausting paralysis of anxiety by nourishing healthy populations of the appropriate probiotics in our guts.
As we understand the gut-brain axis at this point, communications between the gut and the brain (and vice versa) travel via the long vagus nerve, spinal cord, and/or neuroendocrine systems to mediate various physical and mental states – including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Here’s a diagram of the vagus nerve’s path, showing the organs it connects between the brain at its top end and the intestines at its bottom end. You can see what an important communication highway it provides for the body, allowing the brain, lungs, heart, spleen, liver, kidneys, pancreas, stomach, and intestines to ‘talk’ to one another.
THE VAGUS NERVE
It runs from the brain stem down each side of the neck, across the chest, down through the abdomen allowing the brain, lungs, heart, spleen, liver, pancreas, kidneys, stomach and intestines to communicate bi-directionally along its network.
“So far, psychobiotics have been most extensively studied in … patients with irritable bowel syndrome, where positive benefits have been reported for a number of organisms including Bifidobacterium infantis. Evidence is emerging of benefits in alleviating symptoms of depression and in chronic fatigue syndrome. Such benefits may be related to the anti-inflammatory actions of certain psychobiotics and a capacity to reduce hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. ” (Dinan, Stanton & Cryan, 2013)
Did you notice the mention of the anti-inflammatory actions of probiotics in the quote above?
Most physical and mental diseases have inflammation as their root cause. The vast majority of our immune system, about 70% of it, is located in the gut microbiome. Unbalance in the composition of microbes there creates inflammation inside the intestinal linings, increasing gut permeability, leading to chronic inflammation elsewhere in the body – and disease.
This is my short hand explanation for how the connection works:
Chronic imbalance of microbes in the gut –> chronic inflammation in the gut –>increased gut permeability –> chronic inflammation elsewhere in the body –> diseases in the gut and/or elsewhere in the body
These signaling irregularities affect our emotions, mental abilities, behaviors, and perception of and reactions to pain (nociception). The whole system is something like an enormous, highly complex switchboard. If something interferes with signaling somewhere in the system, a circuit can malfunction and perhaps cause the entire switchboard to break down.
Chronic imbalances in our gut bacteria that lead to gut-brain axis signaling irregularities can also lead to a wide variety of other health problems – including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, migraines, thyroid problems, dental issues, cancers, degenerative neurological diseases, obesity, ADD/ADHD, allergies, asthma, autism, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic Lyme disease … and many, many more. And they all begin with the health of the several pounds of miniscule critters living in our gut microbiomes.
Our gut microbiome, the 100 trillion micro-organisms (500-1,000 species of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other tiny life forms) living in our intestinal linings, is so important to the proper functioning of the entire body that many scientists now regard it as an organ in and of itself. The theory is that these micro-organisms communicate with the nervous system using some of the same neurochemicals the body uses to relay messages in the brain. (Smith, 2015)
These several pounds of micro-organisms in our guts secrete a large number of neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the very same chemicals our neurons use to communicate and regulate mood – and chemicals that also play a role in GI disorders, which, not strangely, are associated with high levels of depression and anxiety. (Smith, 2015)
ANXIETY, OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOR, LEAKY GUT AND BACTEROIDES FRAGILIS
In 2013, microbiology researchers Mazmanian and Hsiao published research results that linked a specific variety of probiotic bacteria with anxious behaviors in mice. The mice were known to have alterations in their gut microbiota and GI barrier defects (increased gut permeability, AKA leaky gut) and also exhibited anxious, obsessive behaviors (such as obsessively burying marbles). When they were given oral doses of one of two strains of the bacterium Bacteroides fragilis (probiotic bacteria found in normal gut flora), both their GI problems and maladaptive behaviors improved. (Hsiao et al, 2013) (Smith, 2015)
STRESS, DEPRESSION AND THE PROBIOTICS LACTOBACILLUS AND BIFIDOBACTERIUM
A recent study found that a combination of the probiotics Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum (probiotic bacteria found in healthy human gut microbiomes) reduced anxiety, depression, and stress levels and improved coping strategies. (Messaoudi, 2011)
Our psychological and physiological reactions to fear and stress play a large role in depression. People suffering from major depression also have elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone our adrenals release to get us ready to fight for our lives or flee from the danger. Back when we frequently encountered predatory animals and were often in a fight or flight situation, this elevated release of cortisol was a very useful thing.
What often happens now is that we live in a state of chronic cortisol overproduction, over stimulated, afraid, unable to calm down, wearing out our adrenals. Chronically elevated cortisol production interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune functioning, decreases bone density, increases weight gain, raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, leads to heart disease, increases risk for depression and anxiety, decreases resilience – and is generally exhausting. A combination of the probiotics, Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, was found to reduce cortisol levels. (Berglund, 2013) (Davidson, 2014)
GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is our central nervous system’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitter, playing a central role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the body and regulating muscle tone. (Wikipedia, 2015)
Many physiological and psychological processes associated with depression, including negative ruminations, can be traced to a deficiency in the neurotransmitter GABA. Microbes that actively secrete GABA in the gut have been identified by researchers. Chief among them are strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Bifidobacterium longum has anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and antimutagenic properties and may protect you from developing colon cancer. It’s present in breast milk and is one of the first probiotics to colonize a newborn’s gut.
Swiss and Emmenthaler cheeses contain Lactobacillus helveticus. (We’re talking about real cheeses, not the tasteless, processed kinds often found prepackaged in the US.)
Bifodobacterium longum is found in unprocessed yogurts, various types of fermented dairy foods (kefir’s a good choice), and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut.
Good news for those of us who love dark chocolate: The plentiful polyphenols in dark chocolate serve as PREbiotics, nourishing the beneficial Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in our guts. (Davidson, 2014) The higher the cacao and lower the sugar content the better. Organic and fair trade also if possible.
Both L. helveticus and B. longum can also be taken as supplements.
MOOD, OXYTOCIN AND LACTOBACILLUS REUTERI
A team of biologists at MIT found that another probiotic strain, Lactobacillus reuteri, improved mood, restored a youthful appearance to the skin, and promoted general health by increasing levels of oxytocin, the love hormone. (Davidson, 2015)
L. reuteri is one of the fastest colonizing probiotic bacteria available. This is a good thing – colonizing probiotic strains of bacteria in your gut can restore your health.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus is a bacterial strain that has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in anxious mice.
GABA, the central nervous system’s principal inhibitory neurotransmitter, regulates many physiological and psychological processes in the body. Alterations in GABA receptor expression are linked to the the development of anxiety and depression.
Study results published in 2011 shed light on exactly how L. rhamnosus in the gut impacts the brain’s chemistry.
The researchers found that the probiotic L. rhamnosus markedly affected GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.
When the vagus nerve was severed, GABA receptor levels and the animals’ behavior remained unchanged after treatment with L. rhamnosus, confirming that the vagus nerve is most likely the primary pathway of communication between the bacteria in the gut and the brain.
The researchers allow that the vagus nerve is the obvious communication route but perhaps not the only one, that messaging may also occur via other nerves or chemicals in the blood.
If you doubt there’s a direct connection between the health of the gut microbiome and mental health, keep in mind that functional bowel disorders and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are generally comorbid (they generally occur together).
Strains of L. rhamnosus are found in some dairy products such as live culture yogurts, cheeses (eg, real Parmigiano Reggiano), and kefir. They’re also found in fermented dry sausages and some fermented soy cheeses. (Panyko, 2015)
PAIN, CHRONIC FATIGUE, DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND LACTOBACILLUS ACIDOPHILUS
Lactobacillus acidophilus improves the functioning of canabinoid receptors in the spinal cord that are important for regulating pain perception. (Davidson, 2014)
A 2009 study to see if treatment with live L. acidophilus was helpful for chronic fatigue syndrome and the depression that’s part of it showed promising results. When the researchers supplemented chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers with a live casie strain of L. acidophilus for two months, they saw a significant decrease in the subjects’ depression, anxiety, and general emotional distress. (Rao et al, 2009)
Food sources of L. acidophilus include live culture yogurt and other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, sauerkraut juice, kimchi, miso, chutneys, and kefir.
SEROTININ, CHRONIC INFLAMMATION AND BIFIDOBACTERIUM INFANTIS
A number of microbes can produce other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. For example, Bifidobacterium infantis, taken as an probotic, alters serotonin levels – just like Prozac but without the undesirable side effects. (Davidson, 2014)
Bifidobacterium infantis has been clinically demonstrated to be very good at reducing the symptoms caused by chronic immune activation in the gut, autoimmune diseases, and excessive cortisol release. So it, along with some other probiotic bacteria, is a good choice for people with leaky gut, IBS, IBD, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. (Nootriment, 2015)
Infantis in this bacteria’s name indicates that it’s a strain vitally important for infant health. B. infantis is usually one of the first probiotics mothers pass on to their babies during vaginal births. Many scientists and doctors therefore recommend that pregnant women take it as a supplement.
The main benefit from B. infantis is to improve digestion and protect us against infection and sickness. It has also been shown to fight allergies and prevent kidney stones. It accomplishes all this by producing large amounts of acid to make our digestive tracts and vaginas inhospitable to pathogenic bacteria and parasites. (Jerkunica, 2015)
If you’ve decided to add ready-made fermented foods like sauerkraut or pickles to your diet for their probiotic benefits, remember it’s only the truly fermented versions that are helpful. The ones made with vinegar, although they may say ‘pickled’ on their labels, aren’t actually fermented and don’t offer any probiotic or enzymatic benefits. Look for the fermented versions in the refrigerated areas in stores.
Fermented foods contain living cultures. Refrigeration slows down the fermentation process. The brine may be cloudy – full of lactic acid bacterial growth (the desirable probiotics) created during fermentation. The jar lids may be slightly swollen from the ongoing fermentation process. Fermented pickles have a complex taste – they’re alive on your tongue. Pickles made with vinegar taste like vinegar.
Years ago, when I was living in Cambridge, MA, my neighborhood grocery store was Savenor’s. Mrs Savenor kept a huge, wooden pickle barrel next to the checkout counter. The top of the barrel was open. The brine was cloudy, sometimes scummy looking, and every once in a while the barrel emitted a big belch of gas. I thought the whole thing was unsanitary and never bought her pickles. Now I wish I’d known then what I’ve since learned about the benefits of that living culture.
Savenor’s was also where Julia Child shopped for her meats. The Childs lived in the neighborhood of beautiful big houses on the north side of Kirkland Street. I was in the neighborhood of old apartment buildings on the south side of Kirkland, where students and other people with little money lived.
Here’s a fond memoir about Mrs Savenor by one of her grandsons, Alan Savenor: How a Matriarch Ran Savenor’s. She was a character. Reputedly, she’d smuggled her young boys out of Lithuania by walking across the border with them under her voluminous, floor length skirt when the Nazis set about exterminating all the Jews there.
For those of you interested in improving your gut microbiomes and overall health by eating probiotic-rich foods, here’s a good article on Probiotics & Fermented Foods written by the Sacramento Natural Foods Coop.
YOUR BRAIN ON BUGS
This is what pioneering Integrative Health doc J. E. Williams, OMD, has to say about psychobiotics and how best to get them into your body:
“Microbiota, those microscopic bugs that live in your body—mainly in the gut—can influence brain chemistry and consequently behavior. We know that Clostridium difficile, the nasty gut hospital-based gut infection that kills 14,000 people each year in the U.S., is associated with depression and dementia. Two antidepressants, mirtazapine (Remeron) and fluoxetine (Prozac), are linked to a nearly 50 percent increased risk for Clostridium difficile infection.
“Doctors have long known that foods and changes in the gastrointestinal system are associated with mood changes. Does the pathway to happiness actually exist in your gut?
Sources of Psychobiotics
“Probiotics come in a variety of forms, from powders and capsules to foods such as yogurt, dairy drinks, infant formulas, cheese, and even some energy snack bars. Any of these forms may be effective for digestive problems as long as they contain the right kind of beneficial organisms in adequate numbers.
“In my clinical experience, I’ve found that supplements with live friendly bacteria in high dosages are more effective for treatment of depression, immune deficiency, and gastrointestinal problems then consuming yogurt or fermented vegetables alone.
“We’re finding that most diseases, including psychiatric illnesses, have inflammation as their root cause. Inflammation is associated with immune system imbalance and disruption of hormone activity. Probiotics may also influence how your genes work. Psychobiotics could target genes responsible influencing neurotransmitters like GABA that have a strong connection to mood and behavior.
“We know that “gluten brain” is a type of mental fog common in people with gluten sensitivity. People with gluten sensitivity feel better when eliminating wheat, but the benefit is limited. If you have tried the gluten-free diet and wonder what’s next, consider psychobiotics
“The autonomic nervous system links the brain and gut largely through the vagus nerve. More than 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a feel good neurotransmitter, lies within the gut. In fact, your gut has a mind of its own and it’s called the enteric nervous system.
“Changes in diet have immediate effects on the bacterial composition in your gut. Antibiotics have disastrous effects on gut bacteria. Now we have good research and more than enough clinical evidence that specialized probiotic bacteria are essential for health, and also profoundly influence mood.
“So, it’s not surprising that when your gut is healthier, so is your brain and mood. Your immune system works better too, so you have fewer episodes of the cold and/or flu.”
– Williams, 2014
IS YOUR FATE IN YOUR GENES?: GENETICS VS EPIGENETICS
If there’s been mental illness – say depression, anxiety or panic disorder, OCD, autism, schizophrenia – in your family as far back as anyone can remember, you needn’t feel that you or your children are doomed. Genetics is the study of genes, heredity, and genetic variation in living organisms. Epigenetics is the study of factors that turn genes on and off and affect how cells read genes.
Your genetics account for only 25% of the chance you’ll develop a disease. The other 75% is environmental (both internal and external) and therefore largely up to you. So take very good care of your gut microbiome. Provide it with lots of good microbes (probiotics and psychobiotics) to keep a good balance in there and avoid the bad ones (bacterial pathogens and other toxins) as much as possible.
This is also true of genetic predispositions for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and pretty much every other illness. You are not a prisoner of your genes. Probiotics influence activity in our genes, allowing them to express their contents in a positive, disease-fighting manner.
Research has shown that probiotic bacteria produce positive changes in the mucosal lining of the small intestines which affect gene activity and cellular reactions.
“Consumption of a dairy drink containing three strains of probiotic bacteria was associated with changes in the activity of hundreds of genes, with the changes resembling the effects of certain medicines in the human body, including medicines that positively influence the immune system and those for lowering blood pressure.”
– Mercola, 2010
STAY TUNED! There’s lots of good research being done now on the relationship between probiotics in the gut, mood – and pretty much every other working of the body.
Many thanks to both Liz Poirier and Alex Tatusian for pointing me to the New York Times Magazine article by Peter Andrey Smith, which prompted this post: Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood? It’s very good and I recommend reading it.
Messaoudi, M. et al. (2011). Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 105:5, 755-64. See
Rao, A.V. et al. (2009). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of a probiotic in emotional symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Gut Pathogens, 1:6. See: http://www.gutpathogens.com/content/1/1/6
Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that gradually worsens over time, affecting memory, thinking and behavior – eventually becoming severe enough to interfere with all aspects of daily life. Alzheimer’s involves the progressive loss of brain function, is the most common cause of dementia and the 6th leading cause of death in the US.
In 2013 over 5 million American had the disease. The rates rise yearly and are expected to reach 16 million by 2050.
The University of Colorado at Boulder is offering a fascinating free online course on the human microbiome called
GUT CHECK: EXPLORING YOUR MICROBIOME
This course is going to cover many of the topics I’ve written about on this Allergies and Your Gut site/blog – but you’ll get to hear it and much more from the horses’ mouths: Prof. Rob Knight, Dr. Jessica Metcalf and Dr. Katherine Amato.
Rob Knight is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also works on the Human Microbiome Project.
Dr. Jessica Metcalf is an Evolutionary Biologist and Senior Research Associate at the BioFrontiers Institute, University of Colorado at Boulder.
Dr. Katherine R. Amato is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology and part of the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also contributes to the American Gut Project.
From the course’s website:
Imagine if there were an organ in your body that weighed as much as your brain, that affected your health, your weight, and even your behavior. Wouldn’t you want to know more about it? There is such an organ — the collection of microbes in and on your body, your human microbiome.
ABOUT THE COURSE
The human body harbors up to ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. What are these microbes and what are they doing? How can we study them to find out? What do they tell us about ourselves? Just as our human genome records traces of who we are and the conditions we have adapted to during evolutionary history, our microbial genomes may record traces of what we have eaten, where we have lived, and who we have been in contact with. The microbial ecosystems in different parts of our bodies, which differ radically from one another, also supply a wide range of functions that affect many aspects of human health.
Join us on a guided tour of the human gut and its microscopic inhabitants. We will first review what microbes are and how they get into our bodies. We will then discuss the methods we use to study microbial communities and briefly explore how gut microbiome data are analyzed. This information will provide us with a foundation to explore current microbiome research. We will cover topics such as the influence of the gut microbiota on our nutrition, health and behavior. Did you know that gut microbes may influence how sick we get or the way we feel? The course will culminate with an in-depth review of the American Gut Project, the world’s largest open-source, crowd-sourced science project, from how it works to what it’s taught us up until now.
Week 1: Introduction to microbes and the human microbiome
Meet Professor Rob Knight, Dr. Jessica Metcalf, and Dr. Katherine Amato as they introduce the human microbiome. Key topics this week are:
* What are microbes?
* The human microbiome
* Where do you get your microbes?
Week 2: How we study the microbiome
We will discuss the history of microbial research and review cutting-edge techniques used to examine microbial communities today. Key topics this week are:
* The history of studying microbes
* Basics of high-throughput DNA sequencing
* ‘Omics’ and other useful technologies
Week 3: Making sense out of microbial data
We will briefly review techniques used for analyzing microbiome data. This information will serve as a foundation for exploring recent discoveries in microbiome research later on. Key topics this week are:
* How do we identify a microbe?
* Basics of alpha-diversity
* Beta-diversity, and visualizing differences
Week 4: The human gut microbiome and your health
We will discuss major factors affecting the gut microbiome. We will also explore in detail what we currently know about diet, nutrition, health, and the gut microbiome. Key topics this week are:
* Impact of diet and age on the gut microbiota
* Obesity and the gut microbiota
* Human microbiome and gut disease
* Manipulating the microbiome through fecal transplants
Week 5: Gut microbe-host interactions: Beyond nutrition
We will talk about how the gut microbiome can affect your body outside of the gut, including interactions with the immune system and the brain. Key topics this week are:
* Gut microbiota interactions with the immune system
* Gut microbiota, autoimmune diseases, and allergies
* The gut-brain axis
* Post-mortem human microbiome
Week 6: What’s in the American Gut?
We will re-introduce the American Gut Project and describe results both at an individual and a population level. Key topics this week are:
* The American Gut Project and crowd-funding
* Collecting samples
* Michael Pollan vs. Jeff Leach: American Gut results explained
The first 6-week session starts next Monday, October 6 2014 and runs through November 14 2014. You can also sign up to be notified when the next session will begin. They say it will involve 3-5 hours of work/week.
If you take the course, please let me know how you like it. I’m super busy this fall so am going to wait until the next time it’s offered.