An exciting and rapidly emerging field of neuroscientific research suggests that our gut microbiota has an influence on our mood.
Whilst this research is not new, studies dating back to the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries show a link between the gut and emotional health, the ability of the gut microbiota and the brain to communicate in balancing human health, is at the forefront of modern research.
This research shows that there is a strong bio-directional relationship between the gut and the brain and this communication occurs via the vagus nerve. It’s called the ‘Gut-Brain Axis’ where 90% of the communication comes from the gut to the brain, with the remaining 10% from the brain down to the gut.
‘With anxiety and depressive disorders a leading health issue, millions of dollars is being spent identifying causes, management and prevention. A rapidly emerging field of research suggests that the microbiome-gut-brain axis is of substantial relevance to mood and behaviour. Similarly, unhealthy diet has recently emerged as a significant link as well as a risk factor for anxiety and depression. Studies are now providing evidence for the gut microbiota as a key factor mediating the link between diet and depressive illness’ (Dash S1, Clarke G, Berk M, Jacka FN).
For example serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, balance mood and inhibit pain. People with low serotonin experience those symptoms of worry, ruminating thoughts – the ‘re-processing’ kind of anxiety. About 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut and is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that reside there (Selbub 2015).
What is very interesting is that Dr Eva Selbub’s research shows our microbiota activates the neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain and studies have shown that when people took a targeted-strain of probiotic supplement, their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improved, compared with people who did not take the probiotic.
Felice Jacka is an Associate Professor at Deakin University, and has done extensive research on the link between what we eat, the state of our gut and how we feel. She compared “traditional” diets like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet to the typical “Western” diet. She found that those who ate a Western diet were 50% more likely to have a depressive episode. Whereas those who ate a traditional diet were 35% less likely to suffer from depression and 32% less likely to suffer from anxiety.
Traditional diets tend to be higher in fresh fruit and vegetables, unprocessed grains, legumes and fish and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They also contain minimal processed and refined foods that are high in sugar and preservatives. What’s more many of these unprocessed foods are fermented and therefore act as natural probiotics.
Most traditional diets around the world contain fermented foods such as kimchi from Korea, miso from Japan, sauerkraut from Germany, pickles from Holland, kefir from Russia and Turkey, yoghurt from Turkey & Greece and kombucha from China and Japan. And what’s more these foods are now readily available at local health food and specialty stores.
It has never been more important in our current climate to focus on your gut health. Our enforced lockdown has, for many, compromised healthy eating where many of us used the have overindulged in comfort foods thus inadvertently set up unhealthy habits and cravings where our body is physiologically seeking out high fat, high sugar and salty foods. All of which has a huge impact on our gut health which can further affect our mood and coping strategies of grit, resilience and positivity as we move through these unprecedented times.
Now is definitely the time to redress our eating behaviours, ensure we have established a great and diverse microbiome with the correct strains of microbiota and feeding this microbiota with the beautiful prebiotics that will positively impact our gut health and mental health.
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