New Research Shows That Probiotics Can Help Alleviate Depression

Probiotic Supplements

Good Bacteria To Tackle Depression

Gut microbiome plays an important role in health – including mental health. Researchers from the University of Basel and the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel (UPK) have shown that probiotics can support the effect of antidepressants and help to alleviate depression.

In modern society, depression is a pretty widespread problem. In fact, according to the CDC, 18.5% of adults surveyed in 2019 in the United States had symptoms of depression that were either mild, moderate, or severe in the previous 2 weeks.

What may come as a surprise to many is that scientists have just found that your intestinal flora, the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in your digestive tract, can affect depression. Yet this isn’t as strange as it sounds, as your gut microbiome is known to play a significant role in health and may have links to weight loss, autism, COVID-19 severity, ALS, and drug safety and efficacy.

When he was visited by what he called “the black dog,” Winston Churchill could barely get out of bed. He had no energy, no interests, and no appetite. Although the British prime minister didn’t invent this metaphor for depression, he was the one who popularized it.

Experts use medication and psychotherapy to try to help patients escape from the “black dog,” but it persists in some individuals. Researchers are therefore searching for ways to improve existing therapies and develop new ones.

One promising approach is the microbiome-gut-brain axis. The microbiome is generally understood to mean all the microorganisms that live in or on the human body, such as the intestinal flora. Intestinal bacteria can influence the nervous system for instance via metabolic products.

In a recent study, a research team from the University of Basel and the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel (UPK) has shown that probiotics can support treatment with antidepressants. They reported their findings on June 3, 2022, in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Human Gut Microbiome Illustration

Illustration of the human gut microbiome.

Intestinal flora influences the psyche

It is known from previous studies that patients with depression show an above-average prevalence of intestinal and digestive problems. If the intestinal flora of people with depression is implanted in mice raised in sterile conditions – that is, with no intestinal flora – then the animals also develop depressive-like behavior. For example, they are less energetic and show decreased interest in their surroundings than their peers. Researchers therefore suspect that the composition of the bacterial community in the gut plays an important role in depressive symptoms.

“With additional knowledge of the specific effect of certain bacteria, it may be possible to optimize the selection of bacteria and to use the best mix in order to support treatment for depression.” — Anna-Chiara Schaub

In their new study, the researchers led by Dr. André Schmidt and Professor Undine Lang systematically investigated the effects of probiotics on patients with depression. All participants were inpatients at the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel (UPK) and were given a probiotic (21 subjects) or a placebo (26 subjects) for 31 days, in addition to antidepressants. Neither the participants nor the study staff knew which preparation the subjects were taking throughout the study period. The researchers carried out a series of tests on the participants immediately before treatment, at the end of the 31 days and again four weeks later.

The subsequent analysis showed that although depressive symptoms decreased in all participants thanks to the general antidepressant treatment, there was a greater improvement in the subjects in the probiotic group than in the placebo group.

In addition, the composition of their intestinal flora changed, at least temporarily: in the probiotic group, an analysis of stool samples revealed an increase in lactic

“Although the microbiome-gut-brain axis has been the subject of research for a number of years, the exact mechanisms are yet to be fully clarified,” says Schaub. This was another reason why the researchers believed it was important to use a wide range of bacteria in the form of probiotics, such as formulations already available on the market. “With additional knowledge of the specific effect of certain bacteria, it may be possible to optimize the selection of bacteria and to use the best mix in order to support treatment for depression,” says the researcher – although she is keen to emphasize that probiotics are not suitable as a sole treatment for depression.

Reference: “Clinical, gut microbial and neural effects of a probiotic add-on therapy in depressed patients: a randomized controlled trial” by Anna-Chiara Schaub, Else Schneider, Jorge F. Vazquez-Castellanos, Nina Schweinfurth, Cedric Kettelhack, Jessica P. K. Doll, Gulnara Yamanbaeva, Laura Mählmann, Serge Brand, Christoph Beglinger, Stefan Borgwardt, Jeroen Raes, André Schmidt and Undine E. Lang, 3 June 2022, Translational Psychiatry.
DOI: 10.1038/s41398-022-01977-z


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