Can Diet Actually Combat Depression?
Nearly 7% of all people in the UK suffer from anxiety and depression, and it’s the same in the States so we can’t blame Brexit.
A surge in research points to a physiological connection between our brains and intestines. It’s referred to as the Gut-Brain axis and, like your relationship with your ex, it’s a bit complicated.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The Gut-Brain axis is basically the mechanism by which the nervous system of the digestive tract and the rest of the body communicates. The cells of the gastrointestinal tract are under the influence of gut microorganisms often referred to as the gut microbiome. These tiny microorganisms set up shop in our bodies and maintain peace by warding off unhealthy inflammation. Fun fact: there are 10 times more microorganisms in the gut than there are cells in the human body. Mind blown.
Recent evidence suggests that the microbiome plays an important role in the Gut-Brain axis. Most studies agree that the gut microbiota produces neurotransmitters, the chemical signals necessary for communication between nerves. Since the discovery of the Gut-Brain axis, research has amped up in the field. Scientists now agree on this: a healthy digestive system appears to foster a healthy brain and sound mind.
So now that we understand this connection, how can it be used to combat depression? As the gut’s microbiome appears to influence mental health, we need to promote and protect it as much as possible.
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Protect: Ease off the Salt
Salt can tamper with an otherwise healthy gut. In one study, researchers worked closely with mice, manipulating sodium levels and tracking the rodents’ immune response to salt. As levels increased, scientists spotted a series of chemical reactions that compromised blood flow to specific brain regions in the mice, namely the cortex and hippocampus, both of which are crucial for learning, memory and the ability to comprehend lengthy compound sentences in a short-form internet article. (Just wanted to make sure you were paying attention.)
So far, this type of research has only involved four-legged furballs but scientists believe salt affects human brains in similar ways. This, of course, is slightly alarming because, according to the World Health Organization, nearly every adult under the sun consumes too much salt.
So if scientists are correct and excessive sodium in the small intestine alters the brain’s blood flow, maybe you’d like to get a head start and replace your salty snacks with walnuts or blueberries. Your microbiome with thank you.
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The road to digestive health is paved with probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body. Scientists have reason to believe that one particular probiotic strain — lactobacillus rhamnosus — is the key to warding off poor mental health.
Researchers at The University of Virginia reversed depression symptoms in mice by feeding them lactobacillus. Looking at the mice’s microbiome before and after being subjected to stress, the main change was a decrease in lactobacillus which led to an onset of depression symptoms. Feeding the mice the probiotic strain with their food returned them to normal. Since the study, it’s been identified that the amount of lactobacillus in the gut affects kynurenine, a metabolite found in the blood which has been shown to drive depression. When lactobacillus levels went down, kynurenine levels rose — and depression symptoms set in.
But I’m not a lab rat? Of course, you aren’t. Scholars still have work to do but lactobacillus rhamnosus has a growing reputation for decreasing anxiety among critters. Although human tests haven’t been done yet, we have the same biological systems that lactobacillus uses to affect mood in mice, which suggests that the results could be the same in humans.
If the human tests are successful, dietary changes like adding probiotic yoghurt could be a simple and cost-effective way to combat depression with little to no side-effects. Make sure to look for yoghurts that are live-cultured, and probiotic to get the most benefit. Organic, unsweetened, natural versions are best too. Alternatively, you could feast on probiotic-rich fermented delicacies such as Kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso and so on. You decide.
Sure, some are skeptical but as one Harvard scholar puts it, “There’s no reason not to try [probiotics.]” At the very least, your digestive system will thank you.
So if you’re living with anxiety, that knot in your stomach might be trying to tell you something. Maybe now’s a good time to try probiotics.