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Microbiota-gut-brain axis: The potential of probiotics for mental wellbeing

While many consumers know the importance of a healthy gut for their physical well-being, they’re beginning to discover its potential for supporting mental health, too.

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Anyone who’s experienced “butterflies in the stomach” or finds themselves making more trips to the bathroom during moments of stress probably already knows the gut and the brain are inextricably linked.

With the gut and the brain connected in a dynamic two-way interaction known as the gut-brain axis, what happens in one has been shown to affect the other. This means understanding the ways in which the gut-brain axis works, and investigating the potential for products to support that link, can be a powerful step towards better mental health.

Mental well-being is gaining further traction around the globe as more people recognize the role it plays in overall health and in allowing them to better manage stress and anxiety. As consumers increasingly look to protect their mental health, there’s now a developing market for products that improve cognitive performance and help manage moods.

More than half of consumers globally now recognize the link between cognitive health and overall well-being.1​ To that end, it’s no surprise more than 40% of those consumers are also interested in food or beverages that can support their brain health.2

Already in the US, one in four consumers are taking probiotics to support their cognitive health3​, with 60% of US adults agreeing that feeling emotionally stable is part of having a healthy lifestyle.4​ 47% of those consumers are already managing their mental health daily.5

As FMCG Gurus recently reported, consumers right across the globe are unhappy with their health and wellness and are seeking products that offer genuine nutritional value.6​ Consumers are expected to become even more conscious of their well-being going forward, especially with growing research into how gut bacteria affects the brain and body.

With these consumers looking for ways to better manage their mental health through their diet, probiotics have an important role to play.

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THE MICROBIOTA-GUT-BRAIN AXIS

With the brain and gut connected by the nervous system (or gut-brain axis), research has uncovered how changes to the all-important gut microbiome can affect people emotionally, physically and behaviorally.

This new understanding of the gut-brain axis has come after more than a decade of research into how gut bacteria affects the brain, with the communication between the gut microbiota and the gut-brain axis seeing a new phrase coined – the gut-brain-microbiota axis (Refer to Figure 1).

Knowing more about the two-way highway between the gut and brain makes it easier to understand that what we eat and drink can affect how we feel physically, emotionally and mentally. It also helps explain why stress can affect not just our brains, but our gut, gut microbes, and our immune and hormone systems, too.

Figure 1 - NZMP_Microbiota_gut_brain_illustration_v4 - Abb version Large

Figure 1:  An overview of the microbiota-gut-brain axis and how different systems can interact or influence each other. Refer to our White paper for a more detailed version with written explanations.

Research has also turned to the ways in which the gut-brain-microbiota axis can be better supported. As NZMP’s previous white paper on the effects of probiotics on digestive health​ has shown, probiotics have a role in introducing beneficial bacteria into the gut microbiome. Other studies have found such probiotic supplementation can also influence the body’s important gut neurotransmitter production (refer to figure 1).

This interaction between what people eat, their genes, and the microbes in their gut is complex, but is key to overall good health – and research suggests it’s possible to harness the gut microbiota to improve brain and mental health. With our gut microbiota being a crucial link between what we eat and how we feel, modifying our diet to include specific probiotic strains and/or prebiotics has emerged as an important way in which we can improve our mental health.

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FACING THE CHALLENGES

But while the potential for these specific probiotic strains to improve your mental health and mood remains promising, this emerging area of well-being is not without its challenges – namely the fact there’s currently a limited number of published human studies in this sector.

While clinical research is increasing, analyzing results between trials can also be difficult, due to differences in the way the trials are designed.

Other challenges will arise as more products aimed at addressing mental health enter the market. These hurdles include educating the consumer and will require investments in communication so that customers can better understand the differences between these types of probiotics.

According to FMCG Gurus’ Evolution of Nutrition report, 45% of consumers find existing nutritional labeling difficult to comprehend, which is a key barrier to making diet or lifestyle changes. So while consumers are interested in such products, it’s important not to over-estimate their understanding of what’s in them or how they work.

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As consumers become more aware of the importance of their cognitive well-being, the link between probiotics and mental health will also become more widely acknowledged.

While research over the past several years has changed our understanding of the important tasks the gut-brain axis performs, further robust research and clinical trials will be needed to further identify specific probiotic strains for better mental health and well-being.

NZMP has already partnered with various research institutes to conduct thorough studies in this well-being space. Those investigations follow promising studies in pediatrics, where NZMP currently holds patents for Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001​ claims related to postnatal depression and postnatal anxiety in pregnant women.

With mental health and cognitive well-being a strategic area for NZMP Sport & Active Lifestyle​ going forward, the company is continuing to diversify its portfolio beyond traditional sports nutrition and address wider wellness concerns, a sector that sits naturally alongside their existing dairy portfolio and complex lipid offerings.

More information about the gut-brain-microbiota axis, the influence of probiotics on this vital connection and the challenges this area of well-being currently face can be found in NZMP’s white paper on the topic​. Specific information about NZMP’s probiotics products can also be found at nzmp.com​.

 

References:
  1. Global Data, Global Consumer Survey, Q4 2017
  2. FMCG Gurus, 2019, Top Trends 2019
  3. FMCG Gurus USA Probiotics Survey Q3, 2018
  4. Healthy Lifestyles – US Mintel 2017
  5. Your Health, Mintel 2018
  6.  FMCG Gurus, Evolution of Nutrition, 2019

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