Category: nutritional psychology

Strengthening Your Gut Flora – Building Mental Health

Fermented-foods
Fermented foods are rich sources of probiotics.

In a previous post, I reviewed some of the most recent literature showing how our mental health is impacted by our gut flora.  In addition to boosting mood and reducing anxiety and depression, a healthy community of intestinal flora positively impacts our physical health in countless ways.  We now understand that our gut flora comprises at least 75% of our immune system, regulates metabolism, and even impacts our energy levels.

So how can you apply this knowledge in a practical way to boost your personal wellness?  There are three basic ways to impact your gut flora;  food, supplements, and avoiding damaging your beneficial bacteria.

The easiest, and by far most cost-effective way to boost beneficial bacteria is through the food we eat.  Be sure you are eating plenty of prebiotics, non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria.  Essentially prebiotics are carbohydrates that feed beneficial bacteria.  Foods rich in prebiotics include almonds, onion, garlic, asparagus, bananas, oatmeal, legumes, and Jerusalem artichokes.  In addition to prebiotics, consuming foods containing probiotics, beneficial bacteria, will improve your gut flora and health over time.  Foods that are fermented have gone through a natural process that increases levels of beneficial bacteria in the food.  Sources of dietary probiotics include yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, some soft cheeses, miso, along with many others.  It is important when purchasing these foods to read the labels as not all foods are prepared in a way to preserve the beneficial bacteria.  For example, only sauerkraut and pickles that are fermented (NOT pickled) and stored in the refrigerator contain beneficial bacteria.

Although many of these foods can be challenging to find in the grocery store, fermenting foods at home is simple and inexpensive.  I found that entering the world of fermented foods was somewhat intimidating since as a culture we have moved so far from this traditional method of food preparation.  It is important to educate yourself about the process but it is much safer and easier than you might think.  Remember, fermentation is found in nearly every culture around the world and as far back as we care to look!  Due to the acidic environment created in fermenting foods (typically by addition of salt), fermented foods are an inhospitable environment for most unhealthy bacteria.  Here’s a six-minute video of Sandor Katz, the “king” of traditional fermentation on how to make a simple sauerkruat.  There are countless resources available online and in book form if you’re ready to take the plunge.

Although food sources provide the greatest quantity and diversity of beneficial bacteria, probiotic supplements can also be helpful.  When choosing any supplement, it is important to do your research and ensure it is a quality product.  General things to look for include a well-known, reputable company, third party testing, and absence of fillers.  Specific to probiotics, look for diversity in strains of bacteria,  at least 15 billion bacteria per capsule and bacteria that are acid and bile resistant.

Lastly it is important that as you work to build your gut flora, you avoid damaging the beneficial bacteria present.  Antibiotics decimate all bacteria in your gut, killing beneficial and harmful bacteria.  Obviously there are times that antibiotics are necessary but you should always supplement with probiotics during and after a round of antibiotics.  Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar have been found to increase harmful bacteria and decrease beneficial bacteria.  Yet another reason why a diet high in whole foods is so important to your health!  Lastly managing your stress is important as stress has also been shown to disrupt a healthy microbiome.  Some great options for managing stress include a regular exercise routine, mindfulness practice, and counseling.

As you can see from the suggestions above, small but manageable lifestyle changes may be necessary in order to maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora.  These simple steps will impact your health at a foundational level.  Truly, the importance of gut flora on all aspects of your health cannot be overstated so take your first small step today!

Mind-Altering Bacteria – Gut Flora and Your Mental Health

brain-544403Did you know that our gut is host to 10 times more bacteria than we have human cells?  By number alone, we are more bacteria than human!  Within your intestinal system live approximately 400 species of bacteria that number in the hundreds of trillions.  It has been an accepted medical fact, proven by countless studies, that these bacteria influence our physical health in numerous ways.  A growing body of evidence is now showing us that these bacteria also influence the way our brain develops and functions and impacts our mental health, mood, and emotional processing.

There is a significantly high rate of comorbidity, meaning simultaneous existence, between gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, Celiac, and Reflux Disorder and mental illness such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and schizophrenia.  One study shows that 70-90% of individuals with IBS have psychiatric comorbidity, most commonly major depression.  Additionally, it has been shown repeatedly that individuals with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia have abnormal varieties of bacteria in their gut flora.

Several studies have shown promising results of impacting mood disorders by changing gut flora makeup. The British Journal of Nutrition published a study showing that the addition of probiotics (capsules of healthy bacteria) for 30 days resulted in improved mood and reduced stress hormones.  One fascinating study by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario changed the behaviors of mice by dosing them with probiotics to increase healthy bacteria or antibiotics to reduce the healthy bacteria.  Mice exhibiting anxious behaivors such as defensive digging exhibited a reduction in those behaviors and exhibited more gregarious behaviors.  Likewise, bold mice became timid when they got the microbes of anxious ones and aggressive mice calmed down.

It is clear that these microbes influence the function of our brain.  What is less clear currently, is exactly how.  The vagus nerve, a large nerve identified as the main highway of communication between the brain and abdomen, appears to play a central role.  Researchers in Ireland found that upon cutting the vagus nerve of mice, the brain no longer responded to intestinal flora changes.  It has also been observed that some bacteria produce neurochemicals previously unheard of which impact the brain in novel ways.

While we have a long way to go to understand the complexity of these systems and how they interact, it has become clear that the symbiotic relationship we have with our gut flora is vital to all aspects of our health.  In my next blog post, I will review how to build healthy gut flora and avoid disturbing a normal balance of intestinal flora.