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The gut-brain axis is well documented, but now psychobiotics are being investigated for their mental health-supportin gproperties. 

A few years ago, you might only have glanced at the gut health aisle of your local health and wellbeing emporium if you had stomach issues. Now, that aisle is packed full of pre-, pro- and postbiotic supplements that promise full-body benefits, including supporting our cognitive function and mental health.

Yep, you read that right: gut supplements are increasingly being marketed as mental wellbeing aids. The link between our stomach and our brain has long been studied in the scientific world, and now the field of ‘psychobiotics’ is going mainstream. 

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It’s a phrase first coined in 2013 by researchers at University College Cork. Dr Gerard Clarke, one of the researchers from the original study, tells Stylist that the word refers to “the subset of probiotic strains of bacteria that could potentially modify brain function and behaviour”.

How do psychobiotics work?

Research shows that certain strains of bacteria can benefit stress, cognition (memory, specifically) and sleep. A 2016 paper showed that cortisol output and self-reported anxiety in participants were both positively impacted by strains of a bacteria called bifidobacterium longum 1714.

Other papers also show evidence of prebiotic organisms supporting cognitive performance, including a 2020 study that found participants who took a form of dietary fibre called polydextrose for four weeks produced a higher number of correct responses during a task. 

Psychobiotics help the brain via gut bacteria

“How they work is based on using what is known as the gut-brain axis,” explains Dr Clarke. “This is a two-way communication system between the gut and the brain. Psychobiotic strains can join in these conversations to change the messages or signals going from the gut to the brain, or prebiotics can allow beneficial bacteria in our gut to flourish, which in turn changes the conversations.”

What are the best psychobiotics?

Psychobiotics were initially thought to be strain-specific, meaning that only certain strains of microbiome would bring about positive mental results. Most of these, such as bifidobacterial or lactobacilli, are from families we have been consuming for centuries in dairy products, for example, and are very commonly found in our gut, says Dr Clarke.

But as we learn more about how communities of bacteria work together, psychobiotics has become a broader term for any micro-organism that supports brain function. “This includes options like prebiotics, the things that the bacteria in our gut like to munch on, and a psychobiotic diet, which might be high in fibre and fermented food to support a healthy gut microbiota, or use prebiotic supplements like inulin.”

Most mainstream probiotic supplements will probably contain a strain of psychobiotics, but there is currently no guidance on dosage for mental health benefits. 

“Our research is still at an early stage so we can’t really provide guidance on dosage or timing for human consumption, or definitive recommendations for what strains should be used,” says Dr Clarke. And it’s good to remember that too much of one type of gut bacteria can cause as much of an imbalance as not enough. 

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“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to take a psychobiotic since there are so many options under this umbrella, and if the science holds up as we move from bench to bedside, each one will have its own specific impact. There is still a lot more work to do to get to this stage though, particularly as our studies move from looking at the benefits in healthy individuals to those with specific conditions like depression or anxiety.”

It’s an area to check back in on as the research develops, but it seems one thing is for sure: that trip to the gut health aisle won’t just benefit your digestion. 

Images: Getty

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