Marlene Watson-Tara writes about the gut-brain connection and the significance of diet on a person’s mental health.
Mental health awareness is an issue regularly reported in the media. It is accepted that there is no one cause of mental illness and often the underlying reasons are unclear. Certain stressors such as losing a loved one, diagnosis of terminal illness, the loss of a home, job or a multitude of challenges that people face daily, can trigger an illness in a person who is susceptible to mental health problems. Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or witnessing a horrific incident, can often surface as mental illness many years later. It is difficult to fully understand why some people are more susceptible to mental health issues than others.
But two factors that play a significant role in the stability of our mental health are often ignored: the gut-brain connection and, therefore, the food we eat.
The Gut-Brain connection: serotonin – ‘the happy chemical’
Connecting the gut and brain to mental health is a fascinating area of research. The gut-brain connection is now recognised as a basic tenet of physiology and medicine. There is no shortage of evidence that what we eat is an important factor in a variety of neurological diseases.
What has been discovered is that gut bacteria play a significant role in psychology and behaviour as well as digestion.
The human gut contains almost 95% of the body’s serotonin, “the happy chemical” neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, social behaviour, sleep, memory, and sexual desire. A lack of serotonin is an important factor in depression. Production of this essential chemical depends on the micro-organisms in the gut that are nourished by our diet. This has been an important discovery in understanding mental illness.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. It is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the global burden of disease. Our physical condition can either help us manage our mental state or exacerbate the stress we encounter. The key to this mystery may be inflammation.
The Gut-Brain connection: gut inflammation
The relationship between mental health and gut inflammation was first noted in 1887. The doctor who discovered this relationship was Julius Wager-Jauregg, the only psychiatrist to have ever won the Nobel Prize. There have been subsequent studies confirming this.
The modern diet is pro-inflammatory. This inflammation directly irritates the vagus nerve, the direct connection between the gut and the brain.
The resulting mechanism has been detailed in many studies, including the Journal of Neuroscience Research, and the outcomes are the same. Our gut biome (the colonies of microorganisms that live in the gut) can be contaminated by the food we eat. The prime culprits are found in the modern mainstream diet.
Fighting inflammation with plant-based nutrition
The foods which most exacerbate inflammation are those that are mostly present in processed foods. These include simple sugars, fructose, dairy foods, eggs, alcohol, meat, hydrogenated fats, palm oil and some fruits and vegetables such as tomato and pineapple. These foods encourage inflammation.
Using data from two large studies, Danish researchers have found that higher blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) are associated with a greater risk of psychological stress and clinical depression. Eating a diet with significant amounts of animal protein can cause a burst of inflammation that could increase symptoms in someone already suffering from depression. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, a plant-based diet, has a profound benefit in stress reduction.
A plant-based diet can cut the C-reactive protein by 30% within two weeks because of the anti-inflammatory properties of antioxidants. Eating a diverse and balanced vegan diet can produce profound changes in the gut biome within days.
What a wonderful thing that a diet that can produce physical health can also benefit mental stability.
Image credit: ChrisChrisW