The link between our food, gut microbiome and depression

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Really great article in the Washington Post the other day describing a new study that takes an important step forward in understanding the relationship of gut bacteria to what we eat and how we feel.

You can (and should) read the original article at the Washington Post =

You can see some of the important highlights from the article below…

Research has long suggested a link between our diet and our mental health. 

The gut microbiome — the collective genome of trillions of bacteria that live in the intestinal tract that are created largely by what we eat and drink — appears to influence our mood and mind-set.

The largest analysis of depression and the gut microbiome to date, published in December, found several types of bacteria notably increased or decreased in people with symptoms of depression.

“This study provides some real-life evidence that you are what you eat,” says study author Andre Uitterlinden, who researches genetics at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Or to be exact, how you feel is closely related to what you consume.

The gut-brain axis…gastrointestinal symptoms often are reported in people with psychiatric illness. 

Weight and appetite changes are common among people with depression, from adolescence to older age. 

Anxiety has been tied to a heightened risk of nausea, heartburn, diarrhea and constipation. 

The link between food and mood is there even when we reach for macaroni and cheese to comfort us during a stressful time.

Interest in the gut-brain axis has had a resurgence in the past 20 years. 

A host of studies has pointed to a connection between the microbiota living in our intestinal tract, and our minds, including our memory, mood and cognitive skills.

In one noteworthy study, entitled “Transferring the Blues,” bacteria-free rats given fecal samples from humans diagnosed with major depression became anxious and disinterested in pleasurable activities. 

This new study moves that needle, largely because of its size (1,000 individuals).

The researchers parsed the data for associations between the bacteria populations in the fecal samples with scores from the depression assessment. They then conducted the same tests using data from another 1,539 Dutch citizens encompassing a range of ethnicities. (Validating the findings from one large group in a second large group makes them particularly reliable.)

The analysis revealed 16 types of bacteria that the authors called “important predictors” of depressive symptoms to varying degrees. For example, the study, published in Nature Communications, found a depletion of Eubacterium ventriosum among people who were depressed. Interestingly, this same decrease has been spotted in microbiome studies of traumatic brain injury and obesity, both of which are tied to depression, supporting the notion that this species of bacteria has something to do with this mood disorder.

Eggerthella is found to be consistently increased in abundance in the guts of depressed individuals. The result provides evidence that changes in the gut flora may trigger depressive symptoms.

it appears that comfort eating after a stressful event can change the microbial community in our intestines, which in turn exacerbates depressed feelings – when we are depressed, the gut microbiome is often missing beneficial flora. 

This is where diet enters the picture. An individual who does not consume enough fiber, for example, may experience a decrease in butyrate-producing bacteria, leading to stress and inflammation and, potentially, symptoms of depression.

The sheer amount of research confirming the power of a healthy gut has become undeniable for even the most hard-bitten skeptic.

When the evidence points to the fact that eating healthy, doing a little bit of exercise and taking mindfulness breaks can have benefits, we should probably listen to that data.

Research is slowly illuminating exactly how bacteria talk to the brain. For example, many of them produce short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate and acetate, which influence brain activity. Others generate a chemical called GABA, deficits of which are linked to depression.

This progress means that diet may not be the only way to improve our gut colonies. The use of probiotics to prevent and treat depression could become more of an exact science, leading eventually to effective alternatives to antidepressants, which, still carry a stigma in many communities.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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