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Move over, zoloft! Make way for psychobiotics

Happy girl

For centuries, humans have sought to combat psychological disorders through the intervention of natural – and eventually synthetic – chemicals.

Over the last 50 years, the psychiatric community was fascinated by the idea that mental health could be restored through the direct use of drugs or in combination with traditional psychotherapy. With research exploring and illuminating the biology of psychiatry, it essentially created a new avenue for psychiatric treatment: psychopharmacology. In the 1980’s, the synthesis of a new compound, eventually known as fluoxetine, and then now as we have all come to know it, Prozac.

Today, pharmacologic compounds for psychiatric treatment have exploded and up to 20% of all Americans are taking some type of psychotropic medication totaling $34 billion dollars annually. While there have been some calling for a reduction in use of these chemicals, primarily due to the fact that many are ineffective, there is an ever-present public mindset to have all their problems solved by a pill.

There is a different – and less costly – course to deal with stress and other psychological problems although until recently, there has been little to no attention paid to this option. The treatment does not involve an individual chemical but rather a plethora of them which act to reduce inflammation, calm stress and bring about a more pleasant mood.

They are called quite simply, Psychobiotics.

A psychobiotic is “a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness.” These live organisms are comprised not only of probiotics but also other bacteria known to produce psychotropic signals such as serotonin and dopamine.

While this concept may raise some eyebrows, there is already a good deal of scientific research to draw upon. There have been several research publications in humans showing that the introduction of a probiotic has led to improvement of mood, anxiety and even chronic fatigue syndrome. But there appears to be a disconnect between the idea of ingesting a bacterium that stays in the gut and psychiatric behavior, which is controlled by the brain.

Many psychiatric illnesses are immunological in nature through chronic low grade inflammation. Studies on probiotic strains have revealed their ability to modulate inflammation and bring back a healthy immunological function. In this regard, by controlling inflammation through probiotic administration, there should be an effect of improved psychiatric function.

Psychobiotics are unique in comparison to most probiotics, however.

These strains have another incredible ability to modulate the function of the adrenal gland, which is responsible for controlling anxiety and our response to stress. Probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifdobacterium longum have shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and maintain a calmer, more peaceful state.

Finally, the last point in support of psychobiotics is the fact that certain strains of bacteria actually produce the chemicals necessary for a happy self. But as these chemicals cannot find their way into the brain, another route has been found to explain why they work so well. They stimulate cells in the gut that have the ability to signal the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve then submits this information to the brain, forming what we now refer to as the “gut-brain axis”.

There is little doubt that there needs to be more research into the role of psychobiotics in mental health. However, unlike drugs such as Zoloft or Prozac, which are highly regulated, probiotics are readily available on store shelves. One day soon, we may be able to move past the era of psychopharmacology and head straight into the microscopic macrocosm of mood-regulating microbes…psychobiotics!