Could Yogurt Help Treat Depression?

By Britni de la Cretaz 03/21/17

The bacteria found in yogurt with living cultures may play a role in fighting depression.

Person eating yogurt.

Depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States, with 16.1 million adults affected each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But now, researchers out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine have made a discovery that they hope could change the way we treat depression—and help millions of people.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that feeding mice that exhibit “depressive-like behavior” Lactobacillus, the bacteria found in yogurt with living cultures, reversed their symptoms.

Researchers have yet to test their findings on humans, but they’re excited about the possibility. “The big hope for this kind of research is that we won’t need to bother with complex drugs and side effects when we can just play with the microbiome,” said Alban Gaultier, PhD, the lead researcher on the study. “It would be magical just to change your diet, to change the bacteria you take, and fix your health – and your mood.”

Obviously, this is a simplistic take on treating depression, but researchers have been interested in the role of our gut microbiome on our mental health for some time. In fact, there have been theories about how our gut impacts our mood that date back hundreds of years.

According to Scientific American, scientists believe that the link between the gut and the brain is bidirectional, meaning that it goes both ways and they affect each other. As part of that connection, microbes in the gut produce neuroactive compounds which affect mental health.

“The question that we wanted to ask is, does the microbiome participate in depression?” said Gaultier. And what they found when they looked at the gut bacteria in mice before and after they were subjected to stress was that the loss of Lactobacillus triggered depressive symptoms (which researchers describe as lethargy, basically).

“A single strain of Lactobacillus is able to influence mood,” said Gaultier. The researchers only looked at one strain of the microbe, L. reuteri, but they think that several other strains with similar properties could also work, but more research is needed before they can confirm it.

But if eating yogurt with live cultures can ward off depression, why is it that people who eat it currently may still suffer from depression? "There are many mechanisms involved in driving depression. We have found one that is clearly important, but there are also other contributors to this complex condition,” explains Gaultier.

These findings are just a step toward understanding how to treat the illness. In the meantime, people should probably continue to follow the treatment plan they’ve established with their doctor before switching to yogurt as a treatment for depression.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.