The Gut/Mood Connection: Depression and Probiotics

Depression is one of the top causes of disability worldwide, and it’s incredibly common in the U.S., with millions of people reporting symptoms in any given year. While there are many medications available to treat depression, they aren’t without problems. People taking drugs in the commonly-prescribed category called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) frequently report side effects, and one out of three people taking a prescription report that they don’t find benefit from their medication.

Doctors and patients frequently seek out other solutions, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Acupuncture and herbal medicine have been shown to effectively treat mental health issues, and some studies have found that acupuncture can be just as effective as Prozac!

While TCM treatments are typically individualized for each person, clinicians often focus on the health of the digestive system when treating depression. Our major digestive organs include the spleen, stomach, pancreas, and intestines. For good measure, we also assess the health of the liver and gallbladder, which work closely together with the digestive organs to move and synthesize the energy and nutrients of the body.

Our digestive system nourishes our entire body— you can think of it as the “earth” element in our body that acts as a “soil” to grow and maintain our health. When our digestive system is deficient, it can often lead to fatigue, apathy, low mood, and a “heaviness” both in the mind and physical body. Having that heaviness can also make it difficult to find the motivation to do the things that are known to combat depression, including getting enough exercise and sunlight, eating healthy and balanced meals, and seeking out social activities and relationships that make us feel joyful.

Newer research on depression shows promise for people who take probiotics, the beneficial bacteria and yeasts found in certain foods and supplements. Probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh and kimchi. (Don’t confuse probiotics though with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria that are already in your gut.) There are different strains, or types, of probiotics. While more research is needed, two types in particular, Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, have been associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The potential benefits of probiotics for our gut — and mood — make a lot of sense from a TCM standpoint because probiotics feed the healthy bacteria in our intestines, helping the digestive organs more efficiently produce nutrients. Probiotics are also thought to reduce the inflammation in our gut, which has been linked to depression.

Medications can be life savers, especially for those in the midst of a severe depressive episode. (If this is you or someone you care about, please seek professional help immediately and do not stop any current medications without medical supervision). For those who have depression, but are not currently in crisis and are seeking other solutions, adding probiotic supplements while also having acupuncture and herbs can help lessen the severity of their symptoms.

[written by Christine]