Psychobiotics: How Your Microbiome Can Improve Your Mental Health


No, this isn’t a scary movie. Despite the name, psychobiotics are getting a lot of attention for helping people overcome anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

What are psychobiotics?

Psychobiotics are live bacteria — probiotics and prebiotics — that can improve your mental health by changing your gut microbiome. Researchers are fascinated by the effects these tiny microbes have on the body and the brain and are developing new studies to learn more. 

Just how interconnected mood and mental health are with the microbiome is a whole story on its own. Let’s dive in!

The Gut + Brain Connection: What You Need To Know

Multiple pathways link the gut and brain. These pathways are constantly sending messages between your brain and gut. When the body is not in good health, these signals are disrupted, and mental, emotional, and physical health suffer.

Gut —> Brain

The gut produces neurotransmitters that talk to the brain and create mood fluctuations and emotional responses. These chemicals are crucial for emotional and mental well-being, and having a healthy gut ensures they are ready to serve you when you need them.

Scientists have discovered that 95% of serotonin is made in your gut. Serotonin influences mood, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes. 

GABA is another neurotransmitter that helps regulate brain activity and can calm anxiety. It is contained within specific gut probiotics that work to soothe the mind when the microbiome is balanced.

Dopamine, which boosts your mood, increases motivation, and improves focus, is mainly produced in the brain but is also produced in the gut. Low dopamine levels have been linked to addictive pleasure-seeking behaviors related to drugs, alcohol, and food.

When the brain is triggered by a physical or emotional stressful situation, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is released to increase heart rate and blood flow to your muscles, allowing you to react quickly. Low norepinephrine has been linked to depression and memory loss, while high levels have been found to cause sleep issues, headaches, and high blood pressure. Moderating this neurotransmitter begins in the gut.

Brain —> Gut

Do you remember your parent ever telling you, “Please, go play in the other room. You’re giving me a headache.” It might not be because you were being too loud. It might be that their brain-gut connection was off!

Neurotransmitters can be released from the brain to the gut and create issues. It’s why high anxiety and stressful moments can cause upset stomach, nausea, and headaches. 

Your gut is sensitive to intense emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and anxiety. 

Constantly increased levels of anxiety have a significant effect on the gut. Having intense feelings and recognizing how the gut responds is a powerful tool to knowing yourself that much better. Anxiousness can manifest as feeling as if your stomach is in knots, butterflies, or nauseous. 

Even something as simple as thinking about food and feeling your mouth start to water or your stomach start to growl is the connection between your mind and gut. Your GI tract is responding to your thoughts about food. That’s how powerful your mind is and how connected you are to your gut!

The Gut-Brain Axis

Researchers have called the communication between your gut and brain the gut-brain axis. Information from the gut to the brain and from the brain to the gut is transmitted through the vagus nerve and is facilitated by the central nervous system (CNS), autonomic nervous system (ANS), enteric nervous system (ENS), and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). 

Emeran Mayer, gastroenterologist and author of The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Astonishing Dialogue Taking Place in Our Bodies Impacts Health, Weight, and Mood, said, “Your gut has capabilities that surpass all your other organs and even rival your brain. It has its own nervous system, known in scientific literature as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, and often referred to in the media as the “second brain.” This second brain is made up of 50-100 million nerve cells, as many as are contained in your spinal cord.” 

Stephen Colbert has even jokingly called the gut “the pope of your torso”, referring to its autonomy and ability to find balance as best it can under every circumstance.

Your “second brain” is powered by your gut microbiome and constantly communicates with your brain to stay in sync. When one is feeling off, the other feels the effects.

Anxiety and Mood

The Sleep Foundation describes the mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety as “People feeling extremely nervous and on-edge…affect(ing) concentration and mood, leading to irritability and restlessness. Their fear can feel overwhelming and out of control.”

Do you experience any of the following physical symptoms?

  • Constant fatigue
  • Sleep issues
  • Sugar cravings
  • Chronic stomach issues (gas/bloating, constipation, diarrhea) 
  • Skin issues (eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and acne)

They’re all symptoms of anxiety that show up as physical representations of your emotional state. 

Although it feels terrible when it’s constant, anxiety is a survival instinct for humans and plays a role in keeping you safe. The common analogy is experiencing a life-threatening situation, such as running away from or fighting a saber tooth tiger. Your body responds with physical sensations such as tense muscles, rapid breathing and heartbeat, and sweating that help you to fight or flee. 

The modern world has created many triggers that push every stress button in the body and mind. From oxidative stress (car exhaust, EMFs, pollution, etc.) to every ping! on your phone, your mind and body are constantly triggered with so many tiny stressors that they become overwhelmed. Add to that a diet and lifestyle that contributes to stress, and there’s the recipe for anxiety and mood disorders. 

We’re here to give you new ingredients and steps to take to give anxiety the boot and upgrade your mood. A recipe for success!

1. Probiotics: Fermented Foods Have Good Aliens In Them 

You have aliens in your body. About three pounds of them. And like I said before, there are TRILLIONS of them invading your insides. 

Okay, maybe it is a bit of a scary story. Don’t tell that one to your kids. Or do (cue: evil laughter).

You have a combination of good and bad gut bacteria (aliens) in your gut. Hopefully, you have more good than bad because that good bacteria (probiotics and psychobiotics) fight the attackers and, trust me, you want them to win. 

There is emerging evidence that probiotics and psychobiotics can help boost mood and protect the body against the harmful physical and mental effects of stress.

Psychobiotic bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which are heavy hitters against the battle of depression and anxiety. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir, (unsweetened) yogurt, and sauerkraut have an incredible amount of psychobiotics! If you ever had a reason to eat these healthy foods, it’s to get those good aliens into your gut. 

Sounds like a sci-fi movie, but turns out it’s one more reason real life is just as awesome.

2. Prebiotics: Win Battles With Fiber

Feed the good aliens. Starve the attacking aliens. Win the battle of your gut!

All organisms need food to survive, grow, and get strong. The same applies to your gut bacteria, as crazy as it sounds. “Feeding” your gut microbiome happens daily. Consuming processed, sugary “junk” foods is like giving your bad gut bacteria a fine-dining experience on the field of battle.

All those healthy foods and drinks that people scoff at ACTUALLY do something incredible for your mental and emotional health, physical health, and immune system. They feed your good gut bacteria and keep your gut lining strong. Your harmful gut bacteria HATE healthy, fibrous foods. They would rather die than eat them. 

Foods containing psychobiotics include artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, beans, and berries. 

Starve the attacking aliens. Improve your mood. Change your life. All by eating to feed your good gut bacteria and fueling psychobiotics to be able to lower anxiety. 

3. Cut The Sugar For Better Gut Health

There’s no denying that sugar tastes good. It’s in every food people refer to as a “treat,” right? Treats are delicious! Unfortunately, sugar is in more than just treats these days. And it’s about as addictive as cocaine.

Sugar also lights up the pleasure receptors in your brain and gives your body a burst of energy. The pleasure receptors that are tapped by sugar are the same ones tapped with cocaine intake. This is why sugar is so addictive, and it’s not just your taste buds that love it. It’s actually your brain craving more. 

Remember your “second brain” is in your gut? Yeah, that’s why we have to talk about sugar.

The “sugar rush,” or “sugar high,” can feel like it’s giving you a positive boost in mood and energy. It feels great in the moment. But there’s always a crash and then a craving for more sugar — inevitably making you feel more anxious, exhausted, and irritable. It’s a vicious cycle that’s challenging to break.

Higher consumption of sugar is linked to a higher risk of mood disorders, anxiety, and depression. It can also inhibit your ability to respond to stressful situations and impair brain function, making you feel out of control and sluggish. Looking at your sugar intake gives incredible insight into your gut microbiome. Not only does sugar contribute to overall inflammation in your body, but it also reduces the diversity of bacteria in your gut. 

More than that, the BAD gut bacteria thrive on sugar! Stop eating sugary foods and drinking sugary drinks, and you’ll stop giving the bad gut bacteria a stronghold in your microbiome.

Cutting sugar can ignite anxiety and cause physical discomfort (like headaches), so be sure to take your time and listen to your body. Start incorporating foods that support your gut (like psychobiotics, probiotics, prebiotics, and whole foods!) as you’re cutting sugar and feel more satisfied and nourished. 

How much ADDED sugar are you consuming daily? 

The CDC shares that “In 2017–2018, the average intake of added sugars was 17 teaspoons for adults aged 20 and older.” (1 level teaspoon = 4 grams of sugar) That’s 68 grams of sugar every day! Do you know how much added sugar you consume on a regular basis? Instead of tracking total calories, think about tracking how much added sugar is in the packaged or processed products you consume.

Artificial sweeteners are not better for you.

Foods that are “sugar-free”, “diet,” or “zero-sugar” most likely have an artificial sweetener that’s doing as much damage to your body, and possibly more damage to your brain, as sugar. Why do we have it out for artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet’N Low, and Equal?

  • They slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain. Studies have shown that they are associated with increased weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. One study showed that just drinking one diet soda a day increased the risk for type 2 diabetes by 33%. 
  • They make you even MORE hungry. These sugar substitutes rewire your brain chemistry. Although you perceive the sweetness, your brain doesn’t ever get the memo that you’ve had the “sugar.” So what does your brain do? It keeps asking you to take in sugar because that’s what you’ve told it you’re doing.
  • They have been linked to different types of cancer.
  • They are highly addictive. In one study, rats were given a choice between artificial sweeteners and cocaine. Know which one they chose eight times more often? The ARTIFICIAL SWEETENER! Yikes.

Give your gut a fighting chance. Cut the added sugar and artificial sweeteners and get back to nature’s candy — fruit — for a sweet treat.

4. Avoid The “Dirty Dozen”

Eating fruits and vegetables isn’t the same as 100 years ago. Modern farming practices have changed, and not all for the better.  

“Pesticides are widely used in producing food to control pests such as insects, rodents, weeds, bacteria, mold, and fungus.”

In the 1940s, pesticides used for agriculture upgraded — from natural to synthetic. While crops need protection, industrialized farming practices have relied on using chemicals more and more in recent years, and your gut is feeling the effects. Pesticides, antibiotics, and harmful chemicals sprayed on crops wreak havoc on your gut lining, microbiome, and overall health.

“Studies have found that chronic exposure to pesticides is associated with respiratory problems, memory disorders, skin conditions, depression, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.” (The Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health, University of Washington)

If possible, avoid the fruit and vegetable “dirty dozen” list. Although considered healthy foods, they have the highest content of pesticides used on them! Buy these foods organic if you can. 

Currently, the list includes:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, collard, mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell peppers and hot peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

This list changes periodically based on new data, so be sure to check the Environmental Working Group website for an updated list of these foods. 

Eating fewer foods with pesticides is better for your body, mental health, and the planet

5. Don’t Just Guess, Test!

Getting lost in the woods is scary. It’s overwhelming, and it’s hard to think about which way is which. Carrying a compass is one of the easiest ways to decrease the anxiety of getting lost because at least you’ll be able to know which direction you’re going.

It’s the same with your gut. It is incredibly diverse, and there’s no real way to know what’s happening in there. You could try to guess what your symptoms tell you and make changes, but it could take a long time. 

It’s traveling without a compass. 

Why guess at the problem when there are tests that can help you identify the root cause of your symptoms? Some tests and resources that might be helpful to better understanding your gut health and proclivity toward anxiety include:

  • Microbiome tests
  • Blood panels 
  • Testing for hormone levels
  • Fecal testing
  • Food sensitivity 
  • Monitoring blood glucose 
  • Heart rate variability
  • Blood pressure
  • Food and mood journal

It can sound like such a chore to do all these things. And you don’t have to do all of them. But getting data points about your health is like getting a more accurate compass. The more you know, the more you can point the needle toward BETTER HEALTH. 

Psychobiotics For Better Health

Build your biome with better food options. Thinking about your gut bacteria as aliens duking it out for the ultimate invasion is cool, but what your body really wants is peace (homeostasis). Build your gut and brain connections with psychobiotics and find that inner peace, one day at a time.

Try our Gut Instincts and get probiotics and prebiotics in one yummy gummy for a delicious start on your journey toward better health. 

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