If there is one thing that is on the rise it is our awareness to Mental Health concerns. This is essential because as I write this - the news just released the new statistics that suicide is the number one cause of death for 15-44 year olds in Australia.
I say ‘concerns’ when referring to mental health as I don't feel that using the word ’issues’ really helps the understanding of the dis-ease. What I can say is that finally - and I say finally with great joy - we are opening and beginning to recognise its complexity and severity as we begin to reach in to a world that is debilitating and silent.
Whilst we see the statistics saying to us that mental health is on the rise, I wonder if it is simply that we are finally talking about it. Is it that more are suffering or is it that more are talking about their own experiences with it.
One of the biggest disconnections from mental health is its invisible silence that see’s us believe that nothing is wrong - thinking a smile means all is well.
Yet - there isn't a person who will walk this earth without at some stage in their life crossing paths with a mental health concern. Be it anxiety, depression, stress - these are so common - and so prevalent that they are almost unavoidable.
So much time has gone into the process of researching both the cause and treatment of Mental Health. Yet as with all things research this is going to take time to uncover so many things. Because mental health holds so many things. What makes it even more difficult is that it is individual to each and every person who suffers through it. On thing we do know, one thing we are finally paying more attention to is the role of food in our mental health!
This isn’t perhaps news to everyone, but its news to many. The food we eat and lifestyle that we live directly impacts our mental health.
Lets dive a bit deeper on the subject!!
Our digestive tracts are critical to our health because 70–80 percent of our entire immune system is located there! That is an astounding percentage.
In addition to the impact on our immune systems, our digestive systems are the second largest part of our neurological system. It’s called the enteric nervous system and is located in the gut. This is why the gut is called our second brain and with so much going on we also know that the gut is responsible for creating 95 percent of the serotonin for our body and this holds significant impact on brain function and mood.
Many health issues, such as thyroid imbalances, chronic fatigue, joint pain, psoriasis and autism are connected with gut function, and yet it is not conventional practice for most in the field of medicine to address the gut first when treating such conditions. Even less look to the gut to treat the mind.
Lets be clear on a few key notes.
The microbiome is defined as all microorganisms in the human body and their respective genetic material. The microbiota is defined as all microorganisms in a particular location, such as the GI tract or skin. This distinction is relevant as the microbiota of the gut is our focus in the context of the gut-brain axis.
Not going into HOW the microbiota is formed - short to say that it begins not in utera but during the birthing process itself with the impact of the delivery method and process directly impacting the microbial beginnings of infants. From then on - it is not simply the foods that are of concern, but breastfeeding, environment, the amount of antibiotics and medications used during early childhood that can impact the development and structure of the gut .
Due to many factors including diet, environment, season, health status, it is almost impossible to define a “normal” microbiome for the average human population. It is important to note that microbiomes differ between every individual due to genetic diversity, researchers have found that every microbiome falls into one of three enterotypes. These enterotypes differ by which species dominates one’s bacterial composition,
What has this to do with mental health?
When the human microbiome is challenged with changes in diet, stress, or antibiotics, the physiology of the normal microbiome undergoes change. A dysbiotic state (imbalance) leads to increased intestinal permeability and allows contents such as bacterial metabolites and molecules as well as bacteria themselves to leak through the submucosa and into the systemic circulation, a phenomenon aptly named leaky gut syndrome. Just one of the many gut conditions that are becoming more prevalent today.
What do they have to do with psychiatry? It turns out way more than we might have suspected. The gut and brain have a steady ability to communicate via the nervous system, hormones, and the immune system. Some of the microbiome can release neurotransmitters, just like our own neurones do, speaking to the brain in its own language via the vagus nerve.
Theres way too much to know to understand the depth of this, so I have attempted to grab a few highlights for it to make sense.
Highlights of understanding
The body responds to stress via an adrenal axis.
When stress is encountered our bodies go into all forms of responses. From fight or flight reactions with heart pounding and more adrenalin so we can make the dash to save our lives - to our platelets thickening and becoming more sticky so that if we get hurt we don't bleed out automatically.
Our bodies then take a natural pace to bring levels down after the event - when we have ‘survived’.
Chronic stress - be it mental or physical - (BECAUSE the body can’t differentiate between either form of stress) - the feedback system gets overloaded and a little messed up and creates symptoms of chromic stress like anxiety and depression. but also physical problems like gut issues, headaches and high blood pressure.
At the same time as this happening we have another system the immune system being alerted to all thats happening in the body. and our response to stress is not just hormonal and emotional but also immunological.
The immune system gets put into high alert!! Warning signs going off everywhere. In a way our body responds as if it were in threat of infection and in cases of chronic stress it reacts as if being hit with a chronic infection.
Now our immune system works hard every day to protect us from all forms of illness and infection and even works to keep things like cancer at bay.
What has all this to do with the gut?
Well it turns out the gut regulates the immune response!
The makeup of our gut determines whether we are sick or well - physically or mentally. Plenty of studies have been done (only on rats and mice at this stage) - to show that specific bacteria in our gut create direct illnesses. Some of the responses of the gut even have an effect on our pain response…yes, people with certain unfavorable gut bacteria might be more sensitive to pain than others. The “right” gut bacteria also interact on a hormonal level, helping to turn off the cortisol and adrenaline response that can cause long-term harm to the body.
However, each large group of gut bacteria have many different strains, and each of these strains may have differential effects, some of them synergistic or antagonistic. The scope of complexity of the problem is mind-bending.
In general, it is felt that more variety in the gut microbiome is probably better,
What is the direct evidence these gut microbes affect the brain?
Scientists have shown that rats raised germ-free have different production of key brain neuron fertilizers that help with neuroregeneration, neuroplasticity, and repair than do rats that are (like most animals) colonized with gut bacteria.
This same brain fertilizer we use as humans, BDNF, is necessary in the human brain as well. BDNF being low in the wrong place at the wrong time is implicated in clinical depression, chronic anxiety syndromes, and other psychiatric disease.
These receptors are also important in the regulation of mood, anxiety, and a malfunctioning NMDA receptor is part of the pathology of psychosis, as seen in schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Certain strains of probiotics can increase the availability of tryptophan, the key precursor to making serotonin.
Depressive disorders are characterized by both neuroplastic, organizational changes, and neurochemical dysfunction. Illness is thought to begin when there is deregulation of these systems and can largely be attributed to cytokine release secondary to an exaggerated systemic response to stressors.
All big words saying that our brain is directly impacted by how our body functions and the gut controls how our body functions.
How can we affect the gut microbiome and the immune system?
Changing the diet will have immediate effects- like IMMEDIATE.
The gut micro biome changes every rapidly and a change in diet can impact this within 3-4 days! It is known that folks who eat highly refined diets have a different gut composition than those who eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables. The former showing signs of altered body functions that can lead to dis-ease in the body. This style of diet is highly associated with mental health concerns.
We can also take probiotics, though the research is preliminary, and probiotics only help temporarily (that is, as long as you take them) they DO positively impact our gut. But it is a daily thing - you need to be taking them in some form daily to truly benefit.
The secret to digestive health is all about balancing out the good and bad bacteria in our gut.
The secret to our MENTAL HEALTH is all about balancing out the good and bad bacteria in our gut.
If we can begin to see the direct correlation between our gut health and our mental health we can all take active steps towards improving the balance in both our body and our mind.
It is empowering to know that we can directly impact our mind health. That we can take active steps. Not just in our lifestyle and exercise - BUT - in the food choices we are making.
In a healthy life, consuming probiotic-rich foods and supplements daily are likely one feature of that balancing act. Being more conscious not just of what we are eating but how much, and keeping it as fresh as possible all helps to bring greater balance to our bacteria. Whilst we know that various environmental and dietary habits can lead to issues with the quality of our gut bacteria, these are things that we have the ability to take control of.
It is truly empowering to take note of this latest research for us to be able to take more control over the quality of our lives. That there is so much we can do to turn the tables on our mental health and begin to see life in a whole new way.
A peaceful mind may not simply be about meditation!