Is our gut the key to good mental health?
We all know that food improves our mood. Every one of us has a go-to “comfort food’ to lift us up when we’re feeling low, but what if we could help manage our mental health long term with diet? That is exactly what research has shown may be the case, and the key seems to be the microorganisms that live in our gut and help us digest our food, called the microbiome.
The microbiome may be even more important if you live with diabetes
For the second year, National Diabetes Week is focussing on the impact that living with diabetes can have on mental health. Diabetes Australia says that 4 in 5 people have experienced diabetes stigma, and nearly 50% experience mental health challenges generally, which is twice the national average. While the burden of long-term management plays a role, there is a clear link between blood sugar levels and mental health. The gut is doubly important for people living with diabetes because diet can control blood sugar levels and manage mental state at the same time.
The modern diet is at least partly to blame
The importance of a healthy, plant based, diverse diet is well understood. Everyone that has ever tried to improve their health has read some variation of “the best way to get the nutrients you need is to eat lots of vegetables”. Sadly, this is easier said than done. Modern food is plentiful, transportable, and cheap, but unfortunately, nutrition has suffered as a result. Even so called “healthy” foods are not what they once were. We’ve all heard someone say that fruits and vegetables “just tasted better when I was a kid” (yes, I’m looking at you tomatoes). Unsurprisingly, this decline in flavour is a direct representation of diminished nutritional quality – “fresh food” isn’t fresh, and food just isn’t as nutritious as it used to be.
Food can also be the solution
Our biochemistry is driven by the food we eat. Almost everything that our body needs to thrive comes from our food and is absorbed through the gut. However, it isn’t as straight forward as it may seem. A good portion of what we need to thrive is made by the microbiome. The microbes eat parts of our food (fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, etc) and then make things that we use such as short chain fatty acids (SCFA).
Scientific research has been able to measure the benefits of feeding the microbiome. In one study of people living with diabetes, just adding a functional food, NutriKane D, to the diet resulted in significant improvement of Quality of Life, mental health and ease of management of symptoms. In another study of people recovering during long term hospital stay, cognitive function and mental state were improved by adding microbiome-feeding food. Even people living with Spina Bifida see mental improvements with microbiome modification.
The Gut-Brain Axis is the key
The Gut-Brain Axis (GBA) describes the two-way communication between the central and enteric nervous systems (the system of nerves around and controlled by the gut). The enteric nervous system has so many neurons and uses so much of our mental biochemistry it is sometimes referred to as the second brain. Because digestion is so important, anything that affects digestion affects our mental state in three basic ways :
- Systemic inflammation: if the microbes in the gut get out of balance (called dysbiosis) they can cause inflammation. Over time this inflammation spreads to the whole body that the brain recognises as “aches and pains”.
- Communication through the Vagus nerve: The Vagus nerve is the “direct line” to the brain. Bad digestion has been shown to directly cause feelings of unease, anxiety and even depression. When people experience ‘butterflies in the stomach’ this is the process happening in reverse, when feelings of anxiety translate to digestive distress.
- Bacteria in the gut make and use most of the biochemistry needed for our mental health: It is estimated that up to 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced and consumed by the microbes in the gut. It has been shown that some bacteria do this deliberately - they produce serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters so that they may modify our eating habits. Changing the bacteria in our gut can free up much needed serotonin to relieve depression and anxiety.
It isn’t straight forward, but it is possible to use diet management to improve both your physical and mental health. Functional foods that specifically modify the microbiome, such as NutriKane D, can help with not just diabetes management, but also a range of health conditions, and science shows that taking the time to feed the microbiome gets results both physically and mentally.
About the Author
Dr Malcolm Ball is co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of MediKane, an Australian natural health company that produces plant-based functional food products developed to prevent, manage, and reverse chronic health conditions including diabetes. MediKane’s flagship product is NutriKane D, which has been clinically proven in multiple studies to lower and control blood glucose levels.