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Discovery article about depression

Posted by Hugh on October 5, 2020, at 12:14:20

Every muscle fiber in Tom Peters' body seemed to be conspiring to keep him in bed. His depression -- an occasional visitor for more than a decade -- had reemerged in the summer of 2019, and his legs and arms felt like concrete. The thought of spending another 12-hour day at his computer filled him with dread. As a technical day trader for stocks, he responded to demanding clients constantly. That felt impossible when his brain kept blaring his past failures at top volume.

Fielding the volley of work messages became a Sisyphean task. "There's always the overriding fear that I'm not going to come out of it, that I'm always going to feel this way," Peters says. "That probably is the scariest thing."

Peters, 50, had read about mood probiotics, gut bacterial strains marketed to help with depression and anxiety, but never felt like they were for him. "I was very skeptical," he says. When his wife, who was battling panic attacks, tried mood probiotics and saw her episodes diminish, he began to reconsider. After his depression symptoms returned last summer, and the Prozac he'd tried in the past had lost its potency, his wife went online and ordered him a bottle of the same oatmeal-colored capsules she was taking.

For decades, experts scoffed at the idea that gut bacteria affect our mental health. Many called it a fringe theory. Yet mounting evidence suggests that intestinal microbes profoundly shape our thinking and behavior. Human trials are now underway to investigate how these microbes boost our overall well-being. If the results hold up, new bacteria-based therapies could expand a mental health treatment landscape that has been mostly stagnant for decades.

"Current treatments [for mental health] are not great," says University of Calgary psychiatrist and microbe researcher Valerie Taylor. "When they do work, many of them are intolerable. People are desperate."

For Peters, the prospect of a new path looked tantalizing after enduring the marathon of traditional options. He had gone through multiple stints on Prozac -- a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) -- and wondered if he'd maxed out the drug's potential. "I went off them for a while, then I went back on them, and I felt like I developed a resistance of sorts," he says. It's a familiar tale for almost anyone who takes SSRIs for long-term depression.

Years earlier, when Peters' old dose of Prozac wasn't working as well, his psychiatrist had prescribed him a new, higher dose, one that brought on annoying side effects. "On the higher dose, I felt like I was more sluggish," Peters says. "It drove me crazy." The memory of that unrelenting brain fog helped persuade him to give probiotics a try.

The probiotic strains Peters began taking -- Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum -- hadnt been vetted in large-scale human clinical trials. But they have shown some mood-lifting promise in smaller human studies. Even so, before Peters popped one of the capsules for the first time, he felt his natural skepticism rearing up.

About a week into his new regimen, though, he began to notice a subtle mood shift that soon became more pronounced. "I felt sharper, more energetic -- just a more positive outlook in general," he says. "I felt like I was more relaxed at night." Putting in a day at his desk no longer felt like rolling boulders up a hill. It wasn't that he was abnormally happy, or that he had endless reserves of enthusiasm. Instead, what he felt was an anchoring inner calm, as if the choppy waves he'd been riding had receded.

Peters avoids dissecting the sequence of internal events that banished his depression; he's just thrilled it's gone. Stress and time pressures remain constant in his work life, but he feels like he navigates these bumps more gracefully. "There are days I'm able to focus a thousand percent and there are days I'm not as productive, but there's more stability," he says. "It's not like a yo-yo, way up one day and way down another." Along with the probiotics, he takes a Prozac dose that's a fraction of what he took in the past. It has kept his old brain fog at bay. "To be able to get an extra hour or two out of my day so I can be present for my kids -- to me, that's amazing."

As for the impact on mental health, larger human trials will help determine their effectiveness. Meanwhile, a decade-plus of experimental study has helped researchers assemble a first-string lineup of promising bacterial strains. But those interested should proceed with caution. The probiotic supplement industry in the U.S. is "not FDA-regulated, so there could still be a risk," says Lauren Bylsma, a University of Pittsburgh clinical research psychologist.

Common treatments include:

Fermented foods: Foods like sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir -- a type of fermented milk -- naturally contain bacterial strains tied to anti-depressive effects, such as Lactobacillus helveticus or Lactobacillus acidophilus. That might explain the mood lift some people report from eating them.

L. helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum: This bacterial duo -- a common combo in products marketed as mood probiotics -- has shown some mettle in both human and animal studies. In one human trial, people taking these two bacteria reported a greater drop in depression symptoms than those on a placebo. The bacteria may boost mood by lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

L. acidophilus: This much-touted probiotic strain activated mood-stabilizing gut opioid receptors in one animal study. It also helps strengthen the intestinal lining, which prevents inflammatory compounds from migrating to the brain.

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