Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/4/2022
Unless you’ve been living on the moon, chances are that you’ve heard a lot about the importance of gut health. There’s no doubt it’s a buzzy topic within the wellness community — and with good reason. While not all buzzy topics have a lot to back them up, your gut actually needs a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria to fully function.
If your gut doesn’t have this balance, probiotic supplements can help, and their health benefits aren’t just about balancing bacteria. Taking them can contribute to your overall health and boost your digestion function and immunity. But there’s more. Some even say taking a probiotic can help with mental health issues, like symptoms of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders.
But is this really one of the benefits of probiotics? Keep reading to learn more.
As we mentioned, your gut is filled with strains of bacteria — like, really filled with it. There are trillions of probiotic bacteria (called the gut microbiota) living there. Some of these are “good,” or healthy bacteria and some are “bad” — but even these are necessary. In truth, both types can be considered beneficial bacteria when they’re balanced, since having a balance of good bacteria and bad bacteria keeps your intestinal tract in check and functioning properly. If you don’t have this delicate balance, probiotics (which are filled with bacteria) can help restore it.
It’s thought that the beneficial effects of probiotics include aiding your gastrointestinal tract and digestive health, boosting immune health and easing gas and bloating. And while research isn’t conclusive, they may help manage symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis.
You can get probiotics through foods like yogurt, kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, miso and more. Another option is taking a probiotic supplement. Different supplements contain different strains of probiotics, so it may take you some trial and error to figure out one that addresses your particular gut issues.
But what about the effects of probiotics on non-gut problems? In addition to the above benefits, some say that probiotics can help ease mental health issues like the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
First things first, more research needs to be done to definitively determine if probiotics actually help with anxiety and depressive symptoms. So, why do people think the effects of probiotics may include helping psychiatric disorders?
There is something called the “gut-brain axis.” Essentially, it’s thought that the bacteria in your belly may have an impact on things that happen in your brain, like anxiety disorder and depression. Depression in particular is thought to be caused by low levels of some neurotransmitters — which convey info between your neurons — in your brain, and interestingly, your gastrointestinal tract has its own nervous system and some of the same neurotransmitters that your brain does (such as serotonin).
Neurotransmitters can help (or hurt) your gut motility. The thinking is that your brain and gut may talk to one another — for example, depression and anxiety may cause stomach pain and issues for some people. It is also possible gut issues could lead to depressive disorder or anxiety but, again, more research on the potential effects is needed here.
Because probiotics can help balance gut bacteria, there’s thinking that — if gut issues may lead to mental health issues — they can have beneficial effects for symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In 2017, there was a review of studies done but it was fairly inconclusive. Essentially, it found that some small studies seem to suggest that probiotics had mild benefits in treating depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders, while other studies showed no improvement.
Given that much more research needs to be done to determine if the effects of probiotics can help with symptoms of depression and anxiety, you’ll probably want to consider other treatment options if you are dealing with either of these mental health conditions. The two most common options: therapy or medication. A healthcare professional may recommend one or suggest trying both together.
Talk therapy is used to treat both anxiety and depressive symptoms. While there are many types of therapy, there’s one type that is very often recommended to treat these conditions.
It is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and it involves speaking with a mental health professional to identify behaviors that make your depressive disorder or anxiety worse. Once you identify things that may be boosting your depression or anxiety, you will work with the healthcare provider to figure out ways to change those behaviors.
Anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants may also help.
Medications prescribed for anxiety include antidepressants, beta-blockers and benzodiazepines.
Different types of antidepressants are used in the treatment of depressive symptoms — they include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and others.
If you want to take any type of medication for anxiety or depression, you’ll need to see a healthcare professional. Hers offers convenient online consultations to help you get started.
Your gut health is very important — full stop. If the good and bad bacteria in your gut are off-balance, it can lead to lots of problems and really mess with your digestive tract. Thankfully, probiotics can have a lot of positive effects and may help get that bacteria back in balance to help you reap various health benefits.
In addition to aiding digestion and helping with gas, some people think probiotics may help with mental health disorders — specifically, anxiety symptoms and depression symptoms. This is because there appears to be a gut-brain connection. However, there’s simply not enough evidence to support the effectiveness of probiotics in aiding with depressive symptoms and anxiety.
Instead, if you are dealing with a mental illness like depression or anxiety (or both!), you may want to consider therapy or medication instead of a probiotic. To figure out the best treatment for you (or even if you just think you might have depression or anxiety), schedule a consultation with a healthcare professional today to start improving your quality of life.