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Yep, your gut talks to your brain

You know that fluttering feeling in your stomach before you give a toast? Or the sudden loss of appetite that comes with upsetting news? That’s your brain communicating with your gut’s microbiota, or more scientifically known as the gut-brain axis.

And it goes both ways. Your gut’s microbiota can also talk to your brain. In fact, recent studies show that consuming probiotics may help improve your mood and smarts.

“I can foresee more widespread usage of probiotics in the treatment of mental health, especially since most people can tolerate them well,” says Aparna Iyer, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Iyer says more research is needed to help determine what strains or doses of probiotics might be the most therapeutic, but in the meantime, you can still give your brain a boost by adding probiotics — the smart way — to your diet.

You might think your stomach has a mind of its own sometimes, and you’re right. The gut houses our second brain, the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it’s our job to give the second brain the impression that everything’s hunky-dory down there so that it gabs the good news to brain number one.

“The healthy functioning of one is conducive to healthy functioning of the other,” Iyer says. That’s a prime reason to get geeky about good bacteria consumption, but it’s not just about eating kefir and sauerkraut.

There are specific probiotic strains with more research than others, specifically the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains (specifically the L. helveticus and B. longum strains). Researchers are even calling these strains “psychobiotics” for their potential therapeutic benefits. But here’s what science really knows about probiotics and the brain-gut connection:

Probiotic strainWhat science says
B. longummay reduce depression and anxiety, helps people with IBS
B. bifidumhelps generate vitamins such as K and B-12, which may also influence mood
B. infantisincreased relaxation in rats and helped with treating irritable bowel syndrome
L. reuteriknown to have an anti-pain effect in mice and can help increase excitability
L. plantarumsignificantly increased serotonin and dopamine in mice and reduced anxious behavior when they were in a maze
L. acidophilusmay help reduce cholesterol and supports nutrient absorption
L. helveticusrats administered with L. helveticus showed a decline in anxiety scores but another 2017 study found no difference

Try all probiotic foods: Food products often have a mix of probiotics — and not just one type (although you can purchase a specific strain in pill form).

For example, one study, published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience, showed that people with Alzheimer’s disease who took probiotics (a mixture of L. acidophilus, L. casei, B. bifidum,and L. fermentum) experienced positive effects on cognitive functions like learning power and memory.

Research is ongoing with the brain-gut connection and how probiotics can help. But so far, the work is promising — and, of course, you don’t have to have a chronic illness to reap the potential brain-boosting benefits.

With her clients, Iyer prefers the food, rather than pill, approach. “We find ways of incorporating this aspect of their diet into an overall healthy lifestyle,” she says. “And the patient then ultimately has the control of how to make this change in a way that fits into his or her dietary preferences.”

Probiotics are most common in fermented foods. That means you can easily incorporate them just by getting creative with your meals.

Add a side of probiotics, such as:Common probiotic strains
sauerkraut to pizza L. plantarum, B. bifidum
kimchi to noodle or rice dishesL. plantarum
Greek yogurt in place of sour cream B. infantis, B. bifidum, or lactobacillus
kefir to a smoothieB. infantis, B. bifidum, or lactobacillus
extra pickles to your sandwich or burgerL. plantarum
kombucha with a meallactobacillus

Every person’s microbiome is different, so don’t eat them all at once. When you start to add these foods to your diet, take it slow. For example, you might try a half cup of kefir first and see how your body reacts before working your way up to a full serving, which is one cup.

Experiencing gas, bloating, and increased bowel activity isn’t uncommon. If you don’t experience abdominal discomfort, experiment with more foods until you naturally incorporate probiotics throughout the day.

Eating probiotics with intention has the added benefit of a built-in lifestyle change. “Generally, when my clients introduce probiotics into their diet, they are taking their health seriously and also eating healthy as well,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, based in New York City. “Both of those things together can definitely lead to health improvements.”

Rizzo recognizes that getting a good dose of probiotic foods every day might be a challenge for some people. Always try to get probiotics naturally first. If you’re unable to get in enough, Rizzo suggests a probiotic pill. You can find them at health food stores.

Iyer recommends checking with your physician about dosage and to find a trusted, reputable manufacturer. Probiotics and other supplements aren’t monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There could be concerns about safety, quality, or even packaging.

What’s the deal with supplements?

Probiotic supplements typically contain a combination of several bacteria species. The recommended daily dosage ranges from 1 billion to 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs). Supplements also often contain a mixture of probiotics strains, but the brands will often list which strains they contain.

Probiotic productProbiotic strains
Mood Boosting Probiotic ($23.88)B. infantis, B. longum
Swanson L. Reuteri Plus with L. Rhamnosus, L. Acidophilus ($11.54)L. Reuteri, L. Rhamnosus, L. Acidophilus
Garden of Life Probiotic and Mood Supplement ($31.25)L. helveticus R0052, B. longum R0175
100 Naturals Upbiotics ($17.53)L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus, L. plantarum, L. Caise, B. longum, B. breve, B. subtilis

Start with a dose of lower CFUs and see how your body reacts before working your way up to a full dose.

Tess Catlett started taking a daily probiotic to help relieve bloating. Only she started at a high dose (10 billion CFUs) and found herself in abdominal distress.

“After two or three days of taking it, I began to experience the worst stomachache I’ve had in years,” she says. “Picture the pain of menstrual cramps and the nausea of food poisoning all wrapped up in one.”

But thankfully after adjusting her dose and taking the probiotic continuously for two weeks, Catlett noticed a clear difference in the bloating.

The best time to take a probiotic is with food. A 2011 study found that taking a probiotic pill with a meal or 30 minutes before a meal (but not 30 minutes after) is the optimal way to keep all the benefits of probiotic supplements.

For people who have trouble remembering to take a pill, Rizzo suggests associating your intake with a certain daily activity. You could get in the habit of taking the supplement when you brush your teeth right after you eat breakfast, for example.

Keep in mind that it may take a few weeks for the brain benefits to kick in.

“Even though this might seem like a long time, the reality is that most antidepressants also take this long, too,” Iyer says. “Most of my patients will first report feeling physically better, with less stomach discomfort and less bloating. Shortly thereafter, they will often also start feeling lower levels of anxiety and improvement of their mood,” she adds.

Have finals approaching? Stressed with impending work deadlines? Concerned about seasonal affective disorder (SAD)? Maybe your mood plummets in the days leading up to your period. Or maybe you’re going through a breakup or you’re just having a rough go of it lately. These are all times when getting super smart and intentional with your diet and probiotic intake can make all the difference.

Probiotics and gut health are intimately linked to immune function, which is your body’s ability to fight infection or disease. Incorporating probiotics regularly is your best bet for continued well-being. But don’t be afraid to ramp up your intake a little more when you anticipate you’ll need more help.

This information isn’t intended to encourage anyone to stop taking their medications. Don’t stop taking antidepressants or other prescriptions without first consulting with your healthcare professional and getting the go ahead along with a plan for slowly and properly weaning off.

Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.