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Probiotics for anxiety: Benefits and side effects

Got anxiety? Your gut health, and probiotics for anxiety, might be the missing piece of the mental health puzzle.

September 09, 2021
6 min read

Nearly 8 out of 10 UK adults struggle with extremely high levels of stress, which the Mental Health Foundation warns is "a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression." There are many holistic and medical strategies for tackling anxiety and excessive stress, but there’s one avenue that’s often overlooked—your gut. Groundbreaking research reveals how your gut bacteria and probiotics for anxiety are intrinsically linked to mental health and wellness.

The gut-brain axis: do probiotics work for anxiety? 

Your gut—the collective term for the organs that make up your digestive tract, such as your intestines and stomach—may seem figuratively and literally disconnected from your brain. And yet scientists have found that the health of your gut is closely intertwined with your brain health and mental health.

“A link between the gut microbiota and the brain has long been surmised,” reports recent research published in Nature, “but in recent decades, studies have started to report causal effects of the gut microbiota on our brains and behaviour, and the underlying molecular mechanisms have begun to be elucidated.”

It’s what researchers colloquially refer to as the gut-brain axis, and it turns out that your gut plays an outsized role in your central nervous system. For example:

  • It’s well-documented that your gut communicates with your brain via the vagus nerve, and the communication channels go both ways.

  • Your gut actually contains neurons just like your brain (it’s estimated that your gut contains 500 million neurons, while your brain contains 100 billion neurons).

  • Your gut produces numerous brain chemicals that directly correlate with your levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and general wellness.

The last bit is especially crucial for those who are concerned about stress and anxiety. It’s been shown that the bacteria in your gut help to produce key neurotransmitters that impact your cognition, emotions, emotional regulation, and emotional response. These include:

  • Serotonin: a neurotransmitter related to your sense of happiness (in fact, a large percentage of your serotonin is produced by gut bacteria and not your brain).

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): a neurotransmitter that helps control negative thoughts and anxiety, and is produced by the bacteria in your gut.

  • Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA): These SCFAs play many roles, including moderating brain activity and maintaining the blood-brain barrier.

Your gut’s bacteria also help to break down waste products, bile acids, and other compounds that affect your mental health.  

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How to improve your gut health to improve your mental health

It’s clear that the healthier your gut and your gut’s microbiome, the better your mental health and your resilience to stress and anxiety. 

If you want to build your gut health to reduce your anxiety, try these strategies:

  • Eat more fibre-rich foods.

  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of alcohol and added sugars.

  • Exercise regularly.

  • Stay hydrated.

  • Add fermented foods into your diet.

Fermented foods include dairy products like yoghurt and kefir; fermented plant-based foods, such as tofu and tempeh; fermented beverages, like kombucha; and fermented unpasteurized vegetables, including sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles. 

Yet sometimes it can be difficult to eat enough fermented foods to truly boost your gut health and raise your levels of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Probiotic supplements may help fill the gap and deliver billions of living bacteria to your digestive tract.

Probiotics for anxiety: types of probiotics, different probiotic strains, and probiotics side effects

"Healthy gut bacteria will have a positive effect on the brain and our moods," reports Frontiers. "'Happy gut bacteria' will help us to have 'happy brains.'"

All probiotics work to support a healthier gut and thus improve your mental health, including helping you to better manage stress and anxiety. 

But beyond just boosting your positive emotions and reducing anxiety, each different probiotic strains has its own unique properties:

Both Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus are widely found in supplements and foods throughout Europe and North America. Within each different probiotic strain, you can also find recent reports on how specific varieties affect your mental health.

For example, Lactobacillus plantarum 299v and Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus have both recently been highlighted in studies as being especially potent probiotics for anxiety. More research needs to be done on specific strains, but the general consensus is that most probiotic strains are beneficial for your gut, and thus enhance your brain health.

“The jury is still out,” reports John Hopkins University, which “cautions against using them as a replacement for any prescribed mood-managing medication.” 

“But if taking one a day for a month at least helps ease your gut issues,” the university adds, when it comes to probiotics for anxiety, stress, depression, and mental health—“that alone might make you feel a little bit more ‘up’.” 

How to take probiotics for anxiety

To get the most out of your new probiotic regimen, consider doing the following:

  • Read the label and ensure it contains at least 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs) per dose.

  • Check the expiration date and ensure the manufacturer guarantees 1 billion+ CFUs at the time of expiration (not at the time of manufacturing).

  • Take your probiotics every morning with a meal, ideally one that contains prebiotics and/or fibre.

  • Pair your probiotics for anxiety with vitamins for anxiety.

  • Avoid taking probiotics when you’re on a round of antibiotics, but commence taking your probiotics as soon as your antibiotics are finished.

Probiotics side effects

“Probiotics have an extensive history of apparently safe use, particularly in healthy people,” reports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). “However, few studies have looked at the safety of probiotics in detail, so there’s a lack of solid information on the frequency and severity of side effects.”

If your body reacts negatively to taking probiotics for anxiety, some of the most common side effects are largely minor. And, for most of us without digestive issues, immune system problems and other serious health concerns, the symptoms tend to go away after a week or two. 

Specific side effects may include:

  • Excess gas

  • Bloating

  • Cramping

  • Feeling “full” or a little uncomfortable in your abdomen

However, some small studies have found more serious probiotics side effects in those with pre-existing health conditions, such as pregnancy or a compromised immune system. Always talk to your doctor before changing your supplement routine or trying probiotics for anxiety for the first time.

Are you struggling with anxiety? If so, you aren't alone. The Heights Smart Supplement for anxiety contains 20 high-quality vitamins to relieve anxiety and soothe stress, and to keep your brain healthy in the long term. Find the relief and anxiety support you need with Heights today.

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