Mental Health and Your Gut

We have all said it at one time or another. We have a ‘gut feeling’ about something or that feeling of ‘butterflies in your stomach’. In the past, people have even been diagnosed with a ‘nervous stomach’, but what does this all mean? What if our mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression, were not all in our heads but in fact in our gut.

Evidence of mental health being connected to gut bacteria is mounting and this is not surprising. After all, there are millions of brain cells in your gut, the only other place outside the brain that they exist. The gut is also full of microorganisms; your microbiota. Research into the human microbiota found that “human intestinally derived strains of L. brevis DPC6108 and Bifidobacterium dentium were reported to produce large amounts of γ-aminobutyric acid, a brain neurotransmitter that helps humans to suppress anxiety and depression” (Kerry, R. G. et al, 2018). This being the case, the door is now open to treatment in the form of probiotics to combat anxiety, depression and any number of mental illnesses. 

Yet another study found that “gut microbiota influence stress-related behaviours, including those relevant to anxiety and depression” (Foster, J.J, et al 2017). This article goes on to state that “it has become increasingly clear that bacteria are required for normal brain development.” It is also becoming increasingly clear that while treatment with probiotics later in life is beneficial, a healthy, well-balanced microbiome in the developmental stages of life is essential. We now know that Immunisation with beneficial bacteria makes the brain more stress-resilient, but it is not yet clear that latter treatment will undo all of the damage of a poor microbiome early in life, during key developmental stages.  

What all this means is that a new avenue of treatment is now available in the form of psychobiotics, a term coined in 2013 which “ has recently been expanded to include other microbiota-targeted interventions that can positively modify mental health” (Foster, J. A., et al. 2017).   

Gut / Brain Connection

We instinctively know that there is a connection between the gut and the brain and our language supports this. Sayings such as ‘I have a gut feeling’ or someone having a ‘gut reaction’ to something. Even the term ‘butterflies in my stomach’ all relate to this connection but until recently there has been a limited understanding of how this connection works.

The question is, is it our communication to the brain, as in one part of the body talking to another part of the body, or is it actually our gut bacteria, our microbiota?  We now understand that it is our microbiota, communicating from the gut to the brain in several ways, “including the vagus nerve, gut hormone signalling, the immune system, tryptophan metabolism, and microbial metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids” (Foster, J.A., et al 2017). “The “microbiota-gut-brain axis” is an interactive, bi-directional communication established by the exchange of regulatory signals between the GIT (gastrointestinal tract)and CNS (central nervous system). The effect of probiotics on the CNS has been mainly studied in clinical trials, where it has been evident that gut microbiota influence human brain development function” (Kerry R.G. et al, 2018).

We now have a path to directly affect our mental health by what we eat and what we need to eat a good, old fashioned fermented food.

Study after study has supported the concept that the health of our microbiome and the use of prebiotics and probiotics can directly affect our mental health. In order for us to be happy, our gut microbiota has to be balanced. We now have a path to directly affect our mental health by what we eat and what we need to eat a good, old fashioned fermented food. This includes yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut just to mention a few. Check out greenlivingaustralia.com.au for more information on fermenting and fermented foods, including some helpful videos.

The message we can all take away from this is that we can change our mental health by changing our diet. This is an amazing breakthrough and gives hope to people who have suffered from mental health issues with no hope for relief other than drugs to mask the systems. Now we can tackle the cause of the problem, not just the symptoms.

While diet and gut-related mental health issues do not account for all the problems people suffer from, it does explain why we seem to have an epidemic on our hands. As our diets continue to deteriorate and highly processed foods become the norm, our mental health is declining. Now we can do something about it and it all starts in the kitchen.

Valerie

References

  • Kerry, R.G., Patra, J.K., Gouda, S., Pary, Y., Shin, H., Das, G. (2018) Benefaction of probiotics for human health: A review, Journal of Food and Drug Analysis
  • Foster, J. A. Rinaman, L. Cryan, J.F., Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome, Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 7, 2017
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