When most of us consider our mental health or are caught by its gravity, we usually concentrate more on our brains than our guts. Perhaps it's time to reconsider that.
Depression is the world's single most common cause of disability, yet current therapies can induce remission just half the time. Meanwhile, more and more data suggest a connection between diet quality, gut microbiota, and mental health vulnerability that persists independently of other risk factors. The emerging discipline of nutritional psychiatry recognizes the significant gap between today's treatments for mental health problems and offers a ray of hope: changing our diet.
Though this does not mean we should eliminate pharmaceutical or psychological interventions, the opposite is true: mental health generally requires multimodal therapy. The fact that diet can prevent depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders should supplement standard treatments instead of replacing them. Although our brain generates our emotional and intellectual experiences, it is also an organ that requires food and care, much like the heart or liver. Like all other body organs, the brain is susceptible to its surrounding conditions.
According to researchers, systemic inflammation may be the underlying cause of mental health problems and various other "somatic" ailments, including heart disease and diabetes.
Understanding What Is The Gut Microbiome?
There are a large number of microorganisms that live in the human body, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi, and archaea. These microorganisms are communally known as the microbiome. The gut microbiota is responsible for numerous aspects of health and can affect everything from digestion to immunity.
Did you know that more bacterial cells are living in or on the human body than there are human cells? It's true! Scientists estimate that we have around 40 trillion bacterial cells and only 30 trillion human cells. And these microbes may weigh just as much as the brain! Together, they function like extra organs in the human body and play a massive role in our overall health. The collective genome of all the bacteria in our gut microbiome exceeds 100 times the human DNA in our bodies!
Given the enormous genetic potential of the microbiota, it is expected to play a role in virtually every physiological function in the human body. Gut bacteria have been implicated in various mental illnesses, including sadness, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autism. Patients with psychiatric disorders for example such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and autism were found to have substantial changes in their gut microbe population.
Understanding The Gut-Brain Axis (Second Brain)
The gut and brain are in continuous bidirectional communication, with the microbiota and its metabolic output being a critical component. In his 1999 book, Michael Gershon referred to the digestive system as "the second brain" when scientists learned that the gut and human brain engaged in constant conversation while the gut microbes significantly influenced brain activity.
Gut bacteria are now thought to communicate with the central nervous system through neural, endocrine, and immune pathways, which explains why they can regulate brain function. Gut microbiota is essential in anxiety, mood, memory, and pain management.
As a result, the emerging principle of a microbiota-gut-brain axis suggests that modulating the gut microbiota may be a promising approach for developing new medications for central nervous system illnesses.
Gut Inflammation and Your Mental State
The stomach is the human body's biggest immune organ. The surface area of the intestine (also known as the epithelium), where our body interacts with the outside world, may stretch half a tennis court. A diverse network of immune cells resides beneath that visible surface, ready to sample the edges and maintain order.
The body's most prominent partner comprises friendly (sometimes unfriendly) microbes. The gut microbiota lives above the protective mucus layer that tops the epithelial surface. This working relationship carries out essential functions for our physiology - like facilitating metabolism and reinforcing stability. Above the protective mucus layer that sits atop the epithelial surface are "the good bacteria" or microorganisms. These play an important role in human health by helping digestion and producing nutrients essential to human cells called neurotransmitters.
The gut microbiota is influenced by the food we consume, as our meals are eventually its meals. Gut microbiota affect our inflammatory state by breaking down dietary components into chemical signals that modify immune cells. When we speak about nutrition, we're talking about a whole chain of events that can result in poor health when out of balance. The imbalance may also have an impact on our cognitive function.
Several human studies have shown that diets high in fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, and olive oil are linked to a decreased risk of depression. People with diabetes who have a poor diet are two times more likely to develop depression and anxiety. There is also significant comorbidity between those who suffer from heart disease and sadness.
Fiber and Gut Microbiota
Fiber is essential for our gut health. However, we can't break it down ourselves; the microbiota breaks down fiber into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), arguably the heroes of homeostasis—or balance—in the gut. Fiber is composed of indigestible polysaccharides that serve as roughage in our diet. Often found in fruits and vegetables, beans, seeds, and whole grains. These polysaccharides are a crucial food source for many healthy intestine bacteria. The American diet is reportedly low in fiber (only 5% consume the recommended amount, 19-38g per day).
Metabolizing fiber into SCFAs is possible for only select bacteria. By consuming fiber, we provide these bacteria with a consistent food source to grow and flourish.
Probiotics and Gut Microbiota
Although probiotics' actual passage through the intestines may be brief, they appear to have significant mental health advantages, according to some studies. Although outcomes have been varied, certain experts believe that probiotics may be able to decrease brain inflammation, which is thought to contribute to a variety of mental health issues. Probiotic meals that maintain a healthy colonic microenvironment and defend against opportunistic illness in the intestine might indirectly impact mental health. A meta-analysis of 13 studies revealed that probiotic treatment was linked to a lower depressive score in individuals under 60.
Can My Diet Help My Mental Health?
Although a "depression diet" with specific medical instructions may one day be developed, for now, an excellent research-backed vocabulary might be:
Eating more fiber and colorful fruits and vegetables improves your gut health and cognitive function. These nutrient-rich foods are high in antioxidants and help support healthy gut bacteria growth. Consuming the recommended amount of fiber daily, which is between 19 and 38 grams. It may surprise you how difficult this is! If you're intentional about it, you'll likely find yourself filling up on healthier foods that are more satisfying than unhealthy snacks.
Minor modifications can make a big difference. Simple changes, such as adding chia seeds and berries to your yogurt or taking dates instead of a pastry, may significantly benefit your daily fiber intake. Nothing is too little. Eating a handful of nutritious fruits or nuts is preferable to eating an unhealthful organic dinner that you prepare.
Creating a healthy gut is similar to growing a forest; it takes time and consistency to see results. Discuss the benefits of fiber, probiotics and or change of diet, talk with your gastroenterologist or dietitian to help not only improve your gut health but possibly improve your mental health. Contact GI Associates to schedule an appointment and begin the journey toward better gut health.