Today is Mental Health Day and as we experience a surge in mental health issues, it is easy to look for silver bullet solutions. Mental health is influenced by many factors in our lives – social situation, socio-economic status, diet, sleep, exercise and more. What we are learning more about is that the “Gut-Brain axis” is tremendously influential to our mental state.
As we reach for things to control in an effort to feel better, for many, diet and gut health is a great place to start.
“There is increasing evidence that the Gut Microbiome (GM) and microbial dysbiosis contribute to some of the more prevalent mental health and neurocognitive disorders, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (BP), and dementia as well as the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) through the microbiota-gut-brain axis.”
What happens is two-way communication between the brain and the digestive system, via the vagus nerve and the immune system. This communication happens through a range of compounds produced in the brain and the gut that signal activity. Some of this activity can result in greater amounts of stress compounds circulating in our brain – causing neuroinflammation, or in the gut, causing gut permeability (leaky gut).
When we are in a state of balance, or “normal,” we experience a “resting inflammatory state” where our inflammation system is geared up to go if it needs to, but it’s not in a constant, or chronic inflammatory state. For us to be in this balanced state, we need a health microbial population in our gut. Recent research is showing that some of the levers we use in the form of pharmaceuticals to address mental health issues, can cause problems for a healthy gut microbiome.
For example, when scientists examined the antidepressant fluoxetine, they showed it could inhibit the growth of Lactobacillus rhamnosus (a beneficial species of gut bacteria) at 400 and 600 µg/mL (read more here).
Does this mean we should throw away the pharmaceuticals?
No, probably not in many cases, but what it does mean is that we need to recognise that what we put in our mouths can affect our gut and brain ecosystems and we should also focus on repopulating our gut with probiotics, via a diet (rich in prebiotics and probiotics (read more here) and supplementation are tools at our disposal.
In extreme cases faecal microbiota transplant (where the faeces of a person with a healthy microbiome is used as an oral treatment for someone with gut dysbiosis) might be an option in the future – but we are still learning about this and as a tool and it doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me!
Read here for research being done in New Zealand in this space.
There are also bacteria that live in our gut that are tough to contribute to gut dysbiosis, for example, researchers are trying to understand more about the Genus Alistipesi and how it may contribute to inflammation, cancer and mental health issues alongside the Bacteroidetes phylum (read more here).
You can also read more here about how the balance of out gut microbiome changes as we age.
Research into the gut brain axis and the influence of gut microbiota is increasing, but it’s still in its early stages (read more here) and because pharmaceutical blockbusters are unlikely, there is not the commercial money poured into this area of research it that there might be for other disease.
What we will learn more about in the future is the effects of some of the pharmaceuticals we are taking on our gut microbiome which may lead to a better generation of treatments that help our brain and our gut.
In the meantime, science evidence is growing for the value of consuming probiotics (as supplements or in foods like yoghurts and fermented food) and prebiotics (in fruit and vegetables and supplements) in supporting a healthy gut microbiome and good mental health (read more here).
We finish with a quote from a scientific research paper which sums it up beautifully:
“Mental health is not narrowly located in the head but is assimilated by the physical body and intermingled with the natural world, requiring different methods of research to unfold the meanings and implications of gut thinking for conceptions of human selfhood.”
Happy Mental Health Day to all of you and your loved ones.
From Darcy and Anna (who you can contact at 027 599 2255 or 027 4861418 respectively) or via firstname.lastname@example.org.