TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Can Probiotics Improve Your Mood?

There's a big difference between thinking you're taking a probiotic—and actually taking one

Bacteria appears to do a body a lot of good, from bolstering immunity to easing digestion. Recent evidence also points to certain bacteria as influencing mood, by producing compounds that travel from the intestine to the brain. (There’s even the name for this feel-good superhighway: the gut-brain axis.) Now, a new study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity suggests that taking a probiotic supplement may in fact help improve mood.

Researchers from the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition at Leiden University in the Netherlands conducted a randomized controlled trial of 40 healthy young adults who didn’t have mood disorders. Half took a powdered probiotic supplement, which they dissolved in water or milk and drank nightly for four weeks. The probiotic, called Ecologic Barrier and supplied for free by its manufacturer Winclove BV, contained eight different types of bacteria, including several strains of Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Lactococcus—types of bacteria that some research suggests are effective at easing anxious and depressive symptoms. (Some studies show that multispecies probiotics like these might be more effective than those with just one species.) The people who didn’t get a probiotic took a powdered placebo; everyone thought they were getting the probiotic.

(Winclove BV was not involved in the study design, data collection or data analysis.)

MORE: You Asked: Should I Take Probiotics?

Before the four weeks started and after they were up, researchers tested everyone on a depression sensitivity scale, which measured levels of cognitive reactivity to sad mood—a strong marker of depression, meaning that when a person gets sad, they’re more vulnerable to dysfunctional thoughts that can lead to a lingering depressive episode.

There was no difference between the two groups before the intervention began. But after four weeks, people who took the probiotic reported significantly less reactivity to sad mood than the control group—meaning that when they were put in a sad mood, they had fewer recurrent distressing or aggressive thoughts.

The current study wasn’t able to determine possible mechanisms by which probiotics could improve mood. But the authors have some ideas, including the possibility that beneficial bacteria help tamp down inflammation and permeability of the gut, or that intestinal bacteria increase levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that’s required to make serotonin in the brain.

Probiotic research in humans is limited, and bigger, longer studies are needed before being able to determine if probiotics might have any clinically relevant effects on mood. The researchers also didn’t measure what the people in the study ate, which may skew the results if they started eating lots of probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi.

“Even if preliminary, these results provide the first evidence that the intake of probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with sad mood,”says Lorenza S. Colzato, principal investigator at the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition in a statement. “As such, our findings shed an interesting new light on the potential of probiotics to serve as adjuvant or preventive therapy for depression.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 1

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Screenings can identify a suicidal person, but the actions taken after the screening to decrease stigma and deliver help have a better chance of averting disaster.

By Christopher and Jennifer Gandin Le at Reuters

2. Only five percent of Americans who study abroad are black. That deepens other cultural divisions.

By Brandon Tensley in the New America Foundation Weekly Wonk

3. Game theory holds that cooperation in nature is essential to survival. But new research asks if the game can be rigged.

By Emily Singer in Quanta

4. Most of us believe we can achieve the American Dream if we just work hard. Today’s equality gap shows we’re dead wrong.

By Nicholas Fitz in Scientific American

5. Learning from the past: A thousand year-old Anglo Saxon remedy was just proven effective against hospital superbug MRSA.

By Clare Wilson in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Mental Health Therapy Through Social Networking Could Soon Be a Reality

While still in the development stage, the peer-to-peer technology had "significant benefits"

An experimental social networking platform intent on helping users calm anxiety and reverse symptoms of depression has received positive feedback.

Panoply is a peer-to-peer platform jointly administered by MIT and Northwestern universities that encourages users to “think more flexibly and objectively about the stressful events and thoughts that upset them,” says a paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Researchers found that the network, which is still being studied and has yet to be commercialized, produced “significant benefits, particularly for depressed individuals.”

Panoply works by teaching users a therapeutic tool called cognitive reappraisal, which tries to get people to look at a problematic situation from different perspectives.

When a person is stressed, they write what is causing the problem and their reaction. The “crowd” then responds by a offering a contrasting outlook. Comments are vetted to ensure the original poster is not abused.

The study involved 166 people over a three-week period. Researchers suggested a 25-minute per week minimum interaction to see results.

According to the published paper, the next step is to widen the net and see if the social media platform is as effective over a more diverse audience.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

A High-Fat Diet Could Be Altering Your Behavior and Not Just Your Waistline

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Study finds that heart disease and obesity aren't the only effects of eating too many fatty foods

Obesity, heart disease and other physical afflictions may not be the only negative impacts of consuming fatty foods. According to a recent study on mice, high-fat foods could be affecting behavior, increasing the risk of depression and related psychological disorders.

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, suggests that a high-fat diet alters the mix of bacteria in the gut known as the gut microbiome. These changes, researchers from Louisiana State University believe, might be affecting one’s susceptibility to mental illness.

The researchers tested their hypothesis by taking organisms from the gut microbiome of mice that had been fed a high-fat diet and transplanting them into non-obese mice. They found that the microbiome associated with greater levels of fat led to problems such as increased anxiety and impaired memory.

“This paper suggests that high-fat diets impair brain health, in part, by disrupting the symbiotic relationship between humans and the microorganisms that occupy our gastrointestinal tracks,” Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, told Science Daily.

Although there is still a lot of research to be done in this field, the study highlights mental issues associated with a high-fat diet regardless of obesity.

[Science Daily]

Read next: 10 Reasons Your Belly Fat Isn’t Going Away

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TIME Depression

How Pilots Are Screened for Depression and Suicide

While it’s not clear exactly why Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into a French mountainside, the black box from the cockpit raises questions about whether mental health issues were involved, and how aviation officials identify and monitor the mental health of pilots.

Prosecutor Brice Robin said that the cockpit recordings suggest the lead pilot was locked out of the flight deck after leaving for the restroom, and that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz “voluntarily allowed the aircraft to lose altitude. He had no reason to do this. He had no reason to stop the captain coming back into the cockpit.” As investigators search for a second black box, experts are trying to piece together the reasons why Lubitz acted the way he did. His mental state remains a possible cause.

If the investigation reveals that mental health played a role, it wouldn’t be without precedent. In a 2014 study in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, researchers looked at 20 years of data for what they called “aircraft assisted suicide.” From 1993-2012, 24 of 7,244 plane crashes were thought to be deliberately caused by a pilot. That’s less than 1% of the total, but it’s still enough to raise questions about the mental health stressors of pilots.

“I really wish that we had some kind of deeper thinking about this issue, because it’s one of the most difficult in aviation medicine,” says Alpo Vuorio, MD, PhD, the study author and an aviation specialist in occupational medicine at the Mehiläinen Airport Health Centre in Finland. He screens pilots and cabin crew of commercial airlines for health issues—including mental health issues—and says he sees any given commercial pilot once a year for a short visit.

Commercial pilots have to pass a physical and mental evaluation every six months (for those over 40) or once a year (for those under 40) in order to be certified to fly a passenger plane. The emphasis, however, is on the physical and less on the mental, mainly because mental health is harder to quantify.

“You somehow try to see if the pilot is well, and it’s not the easiest thing,” Vuorio says. Pilots answer yes-or-no questions about their mental health, Vuorio says, like if they’ve ever tried to attempt suicide or visited a psychiatrist. “You speak yes or no, but it’s up to you, what you tell,” he says. Pilots can visit several different locations for these examinations, he says, and if they don’t occur in house, past data don’t appear on the screen.

And pilots aren’t likely to divulge any potential mental health problems, including signs of depression or anxiety, because that would take them out of the sky. “Pilots aren’t going to tell you anything, any more than a medical doctor would about their mental health,” says Scott Shappell, professor of the Human Factors Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University who is a former pilot and crash scene investigator.

Pilots, like doctors and policemen and others with high-stress jobs, tend to be good at compartmentalizing — walling off difficult or emotional experiences so they don’t interfere with their ability to function day-to-day. Medical examiners who evaluate pilots for their recertification also aren’t always trained in mental health, so they may not recognize subtle signs of conditions such as depression or alcoholism.

According to Dr. William Sledge, medical director of the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital who has evaluated pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration, about 40% of pilots he saw were for alcohol related problems, and a third for depression or anxiety. Only about half of the latter group reported their problems themselves, however. The other half were referred to Sledge only after incidents required their superiors to intervene.

“The problem is there is no incentive” to report mental health issues, says Shappell. “They know that if they self report, the way the system is designed, it will be a black mark.”

In a statement, the FAA said: “Pilots must disclose all existing physical and psychological conditions and medications or face significant fines of up to $250,000 if they are found to have falsified information.”

In the case of mental health evaluations, pilots are taken off the flight schedule while they are treated or begin antidepressant medications. Until 2010, even these drugs were banned, and pilots required them could no longer fly.

When the U.S. Air Force began requiring annual suicide prevention and awareness training in 1995, including screening for mental illness, the suicide rate plummeted from about 16 suicides per 100,000 members to about 9.

Even for experts, however, judging whether a pilot is suicidal is one of the hardest parts of the job. That’s no surprise, since the struggles of spotting and talking about suicide plague our entire society, says Barbara Van Dahlen, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and president of Give an Hour, a network of volunteer therapists. “In our society we are so quick to try to make it ok, to say it will pass and to say suck it up,” she says. “We really don’t listen to ourselves and we don’t listen to others very effectively.”

But pilots and others in high-pressure occupations face several unique stressors, she says, like having a physically demanding job and being responsible for other lives. “In a lot of positions of authority and leadership, those people are supposed to be capable and on top of things,” she says. “They don’t have a lot of people to share with and talk to, to be less than perfect and less than OK. That adds to the stress.”

One study of suicides among general aviation pilots—civilians who aren’t leading scheduled commercial flights—published in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, looked at 21-years’ worth of general aviation accidents as reported by the National Transportation Safety Board between 1983-2003. During that time, 37 pilots either committed or attempted suicide by aircraft, and nearly all resulted in a fatality. 38% of the pilots had psychiatric problems, 40% of the suicides or attempts were linked to legal troubles, and almost half, 46%, were linked to domestic and social problems. 24% of the cases involved alcohol and 14% involved illicit drugs.

Having ready access to a plane also seemed to be a contributing factor, too; 24% of the crashed planes in the study were used illicitly.

Read next: German Pilots Cast Doubt on Blaming of Co-Pilot for Crash

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TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The prison system is costly and rarely rehabilitates prisoners. Imagine a better way to transition inmates to freedom.

By Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, & Ross Halperin in Vox

2. Lawmakers should listen to the budget hawks, not the defense hawks.

By Robert Gard and Angela Canterbury in Defense One

3. For teenage girls, it’s possible to shift “attention bias” — literally focusing them on happy faces instead of sad ones — and fight the risk of depression.

By Jennifer Kahn in Pacific Standard

4. The next generation of American workers isn’t prepared to take over the jobs of departing baby boomers. The cost of this failure will be enormous.

By Jennifer Bradley in the Brookings Essay

5. As a four-year college education slips further out of reach, community college has some important lessons to teach us.

By Josh Wyner in the Miami Herald

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Heart Disease

Depression and Stress Could Be ‘Perfect Storm’ for Heart Disease Patients

The combination of depression and stress may increase the chance of a patient dying of heart disease

Intense stress and depression in people with coronary heart disease creates a “perfect storm” that can increase the risk of death, according to a new study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

Overall, patients with both conditions are nearly 50% more likely to die or experience a heart attack as a result of heart disease than those with low stress or depression. The results were most apparent in the first two and a half years after observation began.

“The increase in risk accompanying high stress and high depressive symptoms was robust and consistent across demographics, medical history, medication use and health-risk behaviors,” said lead study author Carmela Alcántara, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center.

The study, which looked at nearly 4,500 adults, expanded on previous research that found that both depression and stress can independently increase the risk of heart disease. The study suggested that some previous research may have misattributed the cause of heart-disease death to stress or depression independently. In reality, the study suggests, the interaction between stress and depression may have led to death rather than either independent factor.

The study traced participants for an average of nearly six years and asked patients to self-report symptoms of depression and stress. Overall, 6.1% of study participants had both high stress and intense symptoms of depression. Only 5.6% of the total sample had high stress alone, and 7.7% had intense symptoms of depression alone.

Researchers said the results suggest that doctors may want to consider additional methods to treat heart disease that include interventions to treat stress and depression.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 4

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. We’re measuring family poverty wrong. We should measure access to opportunity to find out what’s really working.

By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

2. Anxiety, depression and more: “Four to five times more” high school athletes struggle with mental health issues than concussions.

By Gary Mihoces in USA Today

3. They provide social order and an economic structure. What if prison gangs actually make life better behind bars?

By Shannon Mizzi in Wilson Quarterly

4. Scientists have released the genetic sequence of the 2014 Ebola virus to crowdsource solutions to future outbreaks.

By Fathom Information Design

5. If new technology really cut jobs, we’d all be out of work by now.

By Walter Isaacson in the Aspen Journal of Ideas

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

How Facebook Is Helping Suicidal People

Facebook will offer suicide prevention resources to users posting troubling messages

Facebook is going to give timelier help to users who post updates suggesting thoughts of suicide, the company announced on Wednesday.

According to a Facebook post written by Product Manager Rob Boyle and Safety Specialist Nicole Staubli, a trained team will review reports of posts that appear to be suicidal and if necessary send the poster notifications with suicide prevention resources, such as a connection to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline.

The Facebook support posts are expected to look something like this:

Facebook-Suicide-Prevention-hotline-posts
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They also will contact the person reporting the posts, providing them with options to call or message the potentially suicidal friend, or to also seek the advice of a trained professional.

The new approach is an update on a clunkier system, implemented in 2011, that required users to upload links and screenshots to the official Facebook suicide prevention page.

For the project, Facebook worked with suicide prevention organizations Forefront: Innovations in Suicide Prevention, Now Matters Now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Save.org.

The company was clear that the update was not a replacement for local emergency services.

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Exercise May Prevent Depression—Not Just Alleviate It

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Women who keep exercising into midlife can prevent depression, a new study suggests

Getting a decent amount of exercise may be one way to prevent depression symptoms, according to a new study.

Prior research has shown that exercise is a non-invasive way to curb depression, but fewer studies have looked at whether exercising can actually prevent the emergence of depressive symptoms. In a new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers showed that physical activity may give women an extra edge in warding off depression that can sometimes come with aging and worsening health.

The researchers looked 10 years’ worth of data from 2,891 women between ages 42 and 52, who filled out questionnaires about their depressive symptoms and levels of physical activity. They found that the women who were meeting public health recommendations for physical activity—150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise—reported fewer depressive symptoms. The more physical activity the women said they did, the less likely they were to have signs of depression.

“Given the high prevalence of depression in the United States, particularly for women, exercise is still not considered a first-line treatment option, even though exercise can be of low cost and low risk, can be sustained indefinitely, and has additional benefits for multiple aspects of physical health and physical function,” the authors write in the study. “Our findings suggest that motivating midlife women to maintain at least some level of moderate-intensity physical activity may be protective against depressive symptoms, with some activity better than inactivity.”

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