Mood and the microbiome

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Research has shown how probiotics benefit mood and brain health by improving the microbiota-gut-brain axis.
— Read on

The microbiota-gut-brain axis is a bidirectional network in which the brain directs activities in the gut, and resident gut bacteria, in turn profoundly shaping brain development, behavior and mood.1-5 The composition of the microbiome influences normal neurologic development in utero and during the neonatal period.6 Intestinal permeability defects are thought to underlie the chronic low-grade inflammation observed in stress-related psychiatric disorders.7 Those with depressive symptoms frequently exhibit increased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines.8,9,10 Gut microbiota influence transcription of these same cytokines, with dysbiosis triggering the so-called inflammasome pathway, while beneficial metabolites (short-chain fatty acids [SCFAs], in particular) reduce production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.11

It is now recognized that stress and mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are influenced by the health of the gut and the microbiome’s modulation of systemic inflammation. Although introduced as early as 1910,12 it has taken more than a century to establish the so-called ‘gut-brain axis’ as a critical pathway for the prevention and treatment of clinical depression.13,14

Today, a new class of probiotics, known as psychobiotics, are being embraced by physicians as a nontoxic intervention for various psychiatric conditions.15,16 Preclinical research laid the groundwork to investigate the use of probiotics for the treatment of mood disorders in humans, and several clinical trials have examined the role that probiotic supplementation plays in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

In 2017, Wallace and Milev at the Queen’s University in Canada conducted a systematic review of 10 clinical trials on probiotics and mood.17 Most of the studies found positive results on measures of depressive symptoms. One study by Steenbergen and colleagues is noteworthy because the multispecies probiotic studied (as Ecologic Barrier from Winclove) significantly reduced overall cognitive reactivity to depression—specifically, aggressive and ruminative thoughts, as assessed by the Leiden index of depression sensitivity (LEIDS-R).18  Many patients, especially young people with no prior history of depression, would prefer non-pharmaceutical interventions as a first-line treatment,19 and this study is the first to demonstrate that probiotics are a viable preventive in this respect.

To date, clinical trials on probiotics for depression and anxiety have been heterogeneous in terms of dosing, probiotic strain selection and length of treatment. Further randomized controlled clinical trials are warranted to validate the efficacy of this promising intervention.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

  • Saw Dr Talbott on KTLA Sunday news. I’m interested in what a person who has had gastric sleeve surgery should do as to consuming fermented foods and liquids. I have mood and appetite swings often accompanied by bouts of nausea, so achieving a stable level of consumption is quite a challenge for me. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Albert – good question! With gastric sleeve, you can definitely expect benefits from consuming fermented foods – but you’ll have to consume small amounts spread out over several servings per day. This would be just a few ounces of yogurt, kefir, kombucha (2-3 ounces) at a time – but 3-4 servings across the day.
      You could also try another approach – which is to supplement with small amounts of PRE-biotic fibers to help encourage the growth of “good bacteria” in the gut (which are often disrupted in people with gastric sleeves). Look at a product (that I formulated) called Mentabiotics from Amare ( as an example of a product that contains both probiotics and prebiotics to improve mood.
      Hope that helps – and thanks for visiting.

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