Probiotics: Smart strategies for brain health


Probiotic advances to calm the mind (and the gut)

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Photo ©

Modern life is stressful. One survey showed that 65% of adults experience some form of stress on a daily basis1. The global pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings. Another survey, by the American Psychological Association, found that approximately 67% of U.S. adults2 claim to have experienced increased stress throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with 78% stating that the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives.

Faced with increased stress, more consumers are searching for natural stress-management solutions, and supplement manufacturers are rising to meet the demand. Over the last five years, brands around the world launched more than 8,500 new supplements to manage mood, stress, or anxiety. Among those offerings, 333 were probiotics based, a niche market segment which saw 34% growth during the same time period.3

The connection to brain health is an emerging trend in probiotics thanks to our relatively recent understanding of the link between the gut microbiota and the brain. As science continues to highlight the critical impact the gut can have on the brain, interest in natural supplements—such as probiotics that target brain health and, more specifically, stress—continues to grow.

Probiotics to Calm (Gut) Feelings

Stress impacts the entire body by way of the microbiota-gut-brain axis, a bi-directional communication pathway which transmits signals between the gut, microbes that live there, and the central nervous system. Daily or prolonged stress—which a significant proportion of adults are now experiencing—can have detrimental effects on physical and cognitive health.

Aside from apprehension, chronic stress can manifest as physical symptoms such as headache, loss of sleep, difficulty concentrating, and skin issues, to name a few. Continued stress leads to the activation of our stress response system, which includes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The system reacts by increasing stress hormone production, which then triggers a “fight or flight” response in our body.

Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can affect intestinal barrier integrity and immune signaling within the gut, as well as change the composition of gut microbiota. Gut microbiota produce neuroactive compounds, such as neurotransmitters, amino acids, and metabolites, which can signal either directly to the brain or indirectly through the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is a network of nerves at the interface between the gut microbiota, HPA, and vagus nerve that transmits sensory information from the gut to the brain. Signaling along the microbiota-gut-brain axis can influence brain function and even behavior.

Orally ingested probiotics can reach the gut and impact how the body physically and mentally responds to stress through the microbiota-gut-brain axis’s communication pathway. In fact, there is solid evidence to suggest a link between probiotics’ effect on brain health and the underlying stress an individual may experience. Researchers continue to dive deeper into investigating these “psychobiotics,” which can support brain health and help manage stress.

Brain Health Probiotics in Practice

Decades of research and clinical trials demonstrate an association between probiotics’ effect on brain health and stress reduction. Researchers continue to investigate and unravel probiotics’ connection to brain health, and as consumer awareness of the link grows, so does the demand for brain health supplements with efficacious probiotic strains. Savvy formulators looking to develop a tailored stress-management product can confirm a strain’s effectiveness by reviewing its performance in clinical trials. Specific strains deliver specific health benefits. It’s critical to keep this in mind when accommodating consumer trends in the brain health space.

To stand out on the shelves, formulators can consider pairing stress-reducing probiotic strains with other natural compounds to bolster calming effects. Certain probiotic strains can be combined with natural relaxants—such as valerian root, chamomile, elderberry, and passion flower—to provide consumers with a holistic option to help manage stress.

For example, chamomile, or Chamomilla recutita, contains an abundance of apigenin, an antioxidant that binds to certain receptors in the brain to help ease anxiety, promote calm, and initiate a peaceful slumber.

Similarly, valerian root, or Valeriana officinalis, is well known for its sleep-promoting and calming properties. In ancient Greece, valerian was prescribed as a treatment for insomnia, and its therapeutic properties as a sedative were uncovered in the 16th century. Today, valerian can be found in herbal sleep aids or products targeting stress, and formulators can consider pairing it with a stress-reducing probiotic strain to maximize end-product benefits.

Natural ingredients are enticing and effective but not always easily processed in the laboratory or factory. Developers should consider partnering with a reliable ingredient supplier who can provide stable, efficacious probiotic strains, and who has expertise in developing supplements with natural ingredients. In this way, formulators can collaborate with suppliers to meet consumers’ evolving demands and deliver effective products that prioritize strain efficacy and safety.

Going with the Gut for Peace of Mind

As brain health research continues to progress, so does consumer demand for natural stress-management supplements. In fact, the brain health market has been rapidly expanding and is projected to reach US $10.7 billion by 2025.

Formulators seeking to meet industry demand should work with reliable suppliers for efficacious probiotic strains that have been demonstrated in clinical trials to help manage stress. Carefully pairing botanicals and mineral-based ingredients with high-quality strains can help maximize end-product benefits, especially for stress relief. As the brain health market—and the science behind how probiotics impact the brain—continues to grow, supplement formulators can meet consumer demand by developing efficacious products tailored to consumers’ specific brain health needs.

Stephanie Udell is the global marketing leader of probiotics at IFF Health. Over the last 15 years, she has gained deep leadership experience in brand and product management, consumer and audience insights, new product development, and strategy. At IFF, Stephanie leads global marketing and product launch initiatives, including the launch of HOWARU Calm (L. paracasei HOWARU Lpc-37), which relieves consumers’ perceived stress and promotes overall mental well-being. Stephanie earned her bachelor’s and master’s of business administration degrees in marketing and entrepreneurial management from the University of Wisconsin School of Business.


  1. Multi-Sponsor Surveys Inc. “2018 Study of Energy Needs & Solutions.”
  2. American Psychological Association survey. “Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.” Published October 2020. Accessed here.
  3. The Innova Database. Free text search of “mood” or “stress” or “anxiety” positionings. Innova Market Insights.
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