Probiotics in yogurt, dietary supplements, and natural food products have been shown to improve digestive health and even boost the immune system. But intriguing new research suggests the beneficial live bacteria may also offer a promising new drug-free way to treat depression.
The authors of a new review of studies, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, have found substantial evidence that some probiotics offer enormous potential for the treatment of depression and other stress-related disorders.
Timothy Dinan and his colleagues from University College Cork in Ireland said such "psychobiotics" can be modulated by diet and many other factors and may contribute to mental health. They also noted early life stress, such as maternal separation, can induce long-term changes in human gut bacteria.
Dinan and his colleagues cited one study that assessed the potential benefits of a specific probiotic, B. infantis, in rats displaying depressive behavior due to maternal separation. The probiotic treatment normalized the behavior in the animals and boosted their immune response.
In another cited by the researchers, healthy volunteers received either a probiotic combination (L. helveticus R0052 and B. longum) or an inactive placebo for 30 days. Those who received the probiotics reported lower stress levels. In a related study, volunteers who consumed a yogurt containing probiotics reported improved mood.
The researchers suggested these studies and others like them strongly support the notion that some probiotics have the potential to exert behavioral, mental, and immunological effects.
"What is clear at this point is that, of the large number of putative probiotics, only a small percentage have an impact on behavior and may qualify as psychobiotics," said Dinan.
The development and marketing of products that contain probiotics — live bacteria that help maintain a healthy digestive system — have exploded in recent years.
Some psychobiotics have been shown to ease inflammation in the body, which has been tied to stress and depression.
According to the authors, "the intestinal microbial balance may alter the regulation of inflammatory responses and in so doing, may be involved in the modulation of mood and behavior."
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