Depression is predicted to be the world’s leading cause of morbidity by 2050, a legacy of the global pandemic that shows little sign of abating. But a Fonterra project has highlighted the possible benefits of milk-based probiotics in altering that dire prediction.
Dr Maher Fuad, principal research clinician at Fonterra’s Palmerston North innovation centre, says mental health’s taxing impact on the global economy is estimated to be costing the world about US$1 trillion ($1.6 trillion) a year.
“That cost globally is significant. But in recent years there has been a greater focus upon the diet’s impact on mental health. The gut-brain axis, as it is known, is becoming increasingly better understood and may offer some solutions.”
Fuad says a survey reported in US magazine Psychology Today indicated 80% of consumers would switch their diets if it would improve their mental health and wellbeing.
An earlier collaborative study between Fonterra and Auckland and Otago universities examined the role that phospholipids – lipids found in buttermilk – can play in lowering stress, anxiety and depression.
Over a 12-week period participants experienced a 45% reduction in mean stress levels when they consumed phospholipids as part of their diet.
“That decline in anxiety was not statistically significant, but it was still clinically important,” Fuad says.
The researchers’ most recent study, known as Project Happy, has looked at the role probiotic cultures can play in lowering stress and anxiety.
Fonterra has two commercially patented probiotic cultures already utilised in probiotic supplements, LactoBHN001 and BifidoBHN019.
LactoBHN001 is marketed as an ingredient that helps support immunity and health in mothers and young children, and Bifido is focused on digestive health and gut flora.
While the products were initially “gut” focused, a greater understanding of the brain-gut axis is revealing how a healthier gut plays a big part in a healthy brain.
In the trial 120 participants consumed a daily dose of BHN001.
“Over the 30-day period we recorded an improvement in happiness, as measured on the official Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, with accompanying reduced stress levels over that time.”
While clinical understanding of the links between brain and gut health are still unfolding, Fuad says the gut is the organ with the second largest nervous tissue network after the brain, making it an integral part of the stress pathway through the body.
“So, we now have two trials showing similar results, and are looking forward to having the results published in the new year.”
He says the work also reinforces earlier findings on postpartum depression, shown to be reduced with the addition of probiotics to the new mum’s diet.
“We are starting to see more of a shift in the world of psychology’s thinking, where probiotics can be part of the treatment regime.”
Since 2020 the Royal Australian College of Psychology has recommended the administration of probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle for depression and mood disorder.
“We are also looking at how a combination of phospholipids and probiotics could be something to offer in the future.”
Fuad says dairy based proteins contain numerous valuable amino acids that act as precursors for improved neural pathways and health, while phospholipids also play a valuable role in moving “bad” lipids out of the blood stream.
Since the early 1900s they have been referenced for their ability to help reduce disease impact, including on heart disease and diabetes.
As a medical doctor by profession and having practised in the Middle East, Fuad is more familiar than most with the impact of mental health and stress.
“When you consider the implications and costs of mental health, it is exciting to be involved with something that offers a prevention rather than just looking for a cure.”
Suffering from depression or stress, or know someone who is? Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 RURAL HELP
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Need To Talk? Call or text 1737
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234