Stress is a normal part of life, however, long-term stress can contribute to changes in the body that over time, can cause serious health problems and can negatively impact mental and emotional wellbeing. Nevertheless, a holistic approach that includes dietary as well as lifestyle changes can help address stress and its effect on the body, while helping to promote overall healthier mental and emotional states.
Most people are familiar with probiotics – microorganisms that have beneficial health properties – and their use in helping digestive disorders. New scientific research is now suggesting that probiotics also have an extensive application in mental disorders specifically those relating to long-term stress. The human microbiome is the collection of over 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells, which reside primarily in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The bacterial diversity found within our gut is responsible for a broad list of functions including aiding digestion, regulating metabolism, defending against infections, producing vitamins and influencing health outside of the gut. The gut microbiota is fairly stable during our lifetime unless disturbed by factors such as medications, poor diets especially those high in processed foods, chemicals and, chronic high stress.
An imbalanced microbiome, also known as dysbiosis, has been linked to different types of conditions including intestinal permeability, chronic infections, arthritis, autoimmunity and eczema. Numerous scientific studies have now also connected mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and alterations in cognition with changes in the gut microbiome. These studies are further supported by research exposing the co-occurrence of GI disorders with depression and anxiety. In other words, a dysbiotic gut flora can be considered as a contributing, and even causative, factor in certain mood disorders.
At first, scientists didn’t quite know how to explain this link between dysbiosis and psychiatric disorders. However, in recent years, research has revealed a communication network found between the GI tract and the central nervous system. This network, called the “gut-brain axis”, is bidirectional, meaning that the brain communicates with our gut and in turn our GI system sends signals to the brain. Gut bacteria produce various chemical signals including neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine. These are the same compounds, manufactured by our brain, responsible for our happiness, emotional stability and motivation. The gut bacteria are also able to influence nerve inflammation and modulate stress hormones.
Certain probiotic strains have specialized functions, some of which can help with stress and mental conditions. The oral intake of Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 was shown to have positive effects on anxiety, depression and stress in human volunteers. More specifically, they not only have anxiolytic-like effects and alleviated psychological distress but helped to reduce cortisol – the main stress hormone in the body which is associated with depression and anxiety when elevated.
Recent research has also found a link between a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and mental disorders. BDNF helps maintain the function and growth of neurons as well as connections between nerves. It plays a vital role in learning, memory and higher thinking. Low levels of BDNF have been correlated with depression and anxiety. This relationship may be due to BDNF’s role in supporting serotonin production which may have a calming effect on the nervous system. BDNF levels can be increased by exercise, intermittent fasting as well as specific probiotic strains including L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, L. brevis, B. lactis and B. longum.
When trying to address mood conditions, it is best to use a combination of approaches since different factors can contribute to most disease processes. Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years in the treatment of mood disorders. Withania somnifera, also known as ashwagandha, has been used extensively in Ayurveda, the classical Indian system of medicine, for promoting physical and mental wellbeing. This very revered herb is adaptogenic, protecting the body against chronic stress, has anti-aging qualities and mood stabilizing abilities. The bioactive compounds known as glycowithanolides found in ashwagandha have anxiolytic and antidepressant properties partly due to their GABA-like effects. In other studies, ashwagandha was shown to decrease cortisol levels, improve resistance towards stress and improve quality of life. It also has a cognition promoting effect, shown to benefit elderly suffering from memory decline as well as neurodegenerative diseases.
Lastly, antioxidants can greatly help to combat the negative biochemical changes which occur as a result of stress. Although the body has its natural antioxidant defenses, these may become overwhelmed with long-term stress. Increasing dietary antioxidants can protect the nervous system against stress-induced effects. Emerging research suggests that compounds in blueberries known as flavonoids not only may slow the decline in mental faculties but can improve memory and cognitive function. Wild Alaskan blueberry extracts such as AuroaBlue® Alaskan Blueberry Complex possesses up to 10 times more antioxidant activity as compared to regular blueberries due to the harsher growing environments which promote a higher concentration and variety of antioxidants. Blueberries may in fact prove to be the most powerful brain-preserving foods in the world.
Although more studies are needed to fully understand the mechanisms involved in mental health, current research is unravelling some of the workings behind the effects of long-term stress in psychiatric diseases. The use of specific probiotic strains together with botanicals such as ashwagandha and wild blueberries are proving to be an integral part of supporting mental and emotional wellbeing.