Your Brain on Bugs—Will Bacteria be the Next Treatment for Anxiety and Depression?

Friday Feb 28 | BY |
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New research suggests that certain types of probiotics may help improve your mood.

First we had yogurt, then antibiotics, and then probiotics. Next came prebiotics, followed by symbiotics, a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. Now we have psychobiotics.

No, not mixed up crazy ass bugs or stoned-on-weed probiotics made in Colorado!

Psychobiotics: Noun, plural (sci-ko-bi-ot-ics). Laboratory manufactured probiotics for psychiatric treatment.

In the early 1900s, The Russian biologist Élie Metchnikoff found that Bulgarians, who ate lots of yogurt and other fermented foods, lived longer lives. Metchnikoff was the first to propose the idea that friendly gut bacteria helped support health. Others followed.

The nature cure doctor, Bernard Jensen, and a personal mentor of mine, traveled to the Himalayas to witness firsthand the centenarians of Hunza. He discovered that they ate yogurt every day. Eventually dietary probiotics caught on in America. In the early days of the natural health movement, we all ate lots of plain yogurt. In my house, we made our own on the kitchen countertop. Now we have laboratory made probiotics.

European nations remained the leaders in probiotic research, including improving recovery time from surgery and minimizing hospital-based infections, immune boosting activity like preventing colds and flu, and improving digestive function. In the United States, clinical interest has mainly been on irritable bowel syndrome and attention deficient disorder. However, the connection between gut health and mood, and role of gut bacteria, is gaining interest.

When Nature Becomes Medical Therapy

Psychobiotic therapy for psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, and stress-induced mood swings is attracting attention of researchers and doctors. A class of probiotic, psychobiotic bacteria are capable of producing and delivering substances like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin, which act on the brain-gut axis.

Effects may be mediated via the vagus nerve and the neuroendocrine system. This class of friendly bugs may exert anti-inflammatory action and improve imbalanced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. It might not be your adrenal gland’s fault that you’re so tired, but the effect of gut-induced inflammation disrupting adrenal hormone function.

We don’t have specific protocols yet, but they’re coming. In the meantime, you can try psychobiotic therapy on your own, or under your doctor’s supervision. Here are some tips from my clinical practice.

Your Brain On Bugs

Microbiota, those microscopic bugs that live in your body—mainly in the gut—can influence brain chemistry and consequently behavior. We know that Clostridium difficile, the nasty gut hospital-based gut infection that kills 14,000 people each year in the U.S., is associated with depression and dementia. Two antidepressants, mirtazapine (Remeron) and fluoxetine (Prozac), are linked to a nearly a 50 percent increased risk for Clostridium difficile infection.

Doctors have long known that foods and changes in the gastrointestinal system are associated with mood changes. Does the pathway to happiness actually exist in your gut?

Sources of Psychobiotics

Probiotics come in a variety of forms, from powders and capsules to foods such as yogurt, dairy drinks, infant formulas, cheese, and even some energy snack bars. Any of these forms may be effective for digestive problems as long as they contain the right kind of beneficial organisms in adequate numbers.

In my clinical experience, I’ve found that supplements with live friendly bacteria in high dosages are more effective for treatment of depression, immune deficiency, and gastrointestinal problems then consuming yogurt or fermented vegetables alone.

Friendly Psychobiotics

  • Bacteriodies fragilis
  • Bifidobacterium infantis
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus
  • Lactobacillus helveticus
  • Bifidobacterium longum
  • Lactobacillus brevis

Probiotics with Antibiotics

When using antibiotics, take probiotics the entire course and for a few weeks afterwards. Clinical wisdom used to be that antibiotics killed probiotic supplements. While that may have been true for low dose, milder versions of first-generation probiotics and many second-generation probiotics like Lactobacillus sporogenese are antibiotic resistant.

More than a third of patients taking antibiotics develop antibiotic associated diarrhea (AAD), and in 17% of cases, it’s fatal. Pseudomembranous colitis secondary to C difficile is the main cause of AAD-related mortality. C difficile infections cost the US health care system up to $1.3 billion annually.
The Journal of Family Practice

Ask your doctor for a prescription for probiotics along with antibiotics. For my patients, I recommend ABx Support from Klaire Labs. This is a laboratory manufactured medical grade probiotic combination of at least 10 billion live bacterial units per capsule.

Probiotic Blend 10+ billion CFUs in a base of inulin derived from chicory root:

  • Saccharomyces boulardii 5.0+ billion CFUs
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus 2.5+ billion CFUs
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum 1.25+ billion CFUs
  • Bifidobacterium breve 1.25+ billion CFUs

Probiotics That Health Insurance May Cover:

  • Florastor – Saccharomyces boulardii
  • Culturelle HS and DS – Lactobacillus GG

Brain-Immune-Gut Axis

We’re finding that most diseases, including psychiatric illnesses, have inflammation as their root cause. Inflammation is associated with immune system imbalance and disruption of hormone activity. Probiotics may also influence how your genes work. Psychobiotics could target genes responsible influencing neurotransmitters like GABA that have a strong connection to mood and behavior.

We know that “gluten brain” is a type of mental fog common in people with gluten sensitivity. People with gluten sensitivity feel better when eliminating wheat, but the benefit is limited. If you have tried the gluten-free diet and wonder what’s next, consider psychobiotics.

The autonomic nervous system links the brain and gut largely through the vagus nerve. More than 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a feel good neurotransmitter, lies within the gut. In fact, your gut has a mind of its own and it’s called the enteric nervous system.

Changes in diet have immediate effects on the bacterial composition in your gut. Antibiotics have disastrous effects on gut bacteria. Now we have good research and more than enough clinical evidence that specialized probiotic bacteria are essential for health, and also profoundly influence mood.

So, it’s not surprising that when your gut is healthier, so is your brain and mood. Your immune system works better too, so you have fewer episodes of the cold and/or flu.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. Kym says:

    Hello Dr. Williams. I have a related question in connection to telomeres (comments are closed on your RH article on the subject). In a recent e-mail, you mentioned that red wine is useful in promoting telomere length due to its polyphenol content. I wonder if you have any comments about sulfite and nitrite content in red wine. I believe red wine has some naturally occurring levels of both but sulfites are also added as preservatives, including in organic wines.
    While reading up about this, I have just seen an article (on a qualified integrative health practitioner’s site) saying the claims about the damaging effects of nitrites/nitrates used as preservatives are untrue. Any comments? Sorry, questions of large scope, I realize. Perhaps worth an RH article or two? Thank you.

  2. June Hanson says:

    Ah, I must have a lot of happy bugs in me. I have been taking your ABX probiotics, prebiotics, for years. Short course of antibiotic eye drops, without any problems. Was not always that way. For years, I suffered until, I became your patient. Anxiety, does not last. Brain is happy, even without any sugar in my diet. That’s one, that causes the bad bugs. Yes, definitely, happy gut, happy brain, with the right daily probiotics. Sweetened yogurt, you have defeated your purpose. Having the right Doctor, right food, will produce, a healthy, happy brain. Follow Dr Williams advice!


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