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Health Matters: How Gut Microbes Influence Depression

Food for thought

Numerous factors contribute to depression—general anxiety, chronic fatigue, and substance abuse, to name a few. One of those factors, unlikely though it may sound, might be our gut microbiome.


Most of us know of the huge role microbiomes play in helping us maintain a healthy immune system, but did you know that they also have the ability to influence our brain chemistry? Several studies carried out on mice and initial studies on humans indicate strong correlations between microbes in the gut, objective (neurochemical) and subjective (self-reported) assessments of emotional well-being, and their corresponding behavior patterns.


What this means is that our gut’s microbial community is actively communicating with and influencing our brain. It does this via several mechanisms. One is through the up or down-regulation of neutrotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Its role in helping to maintain a healthy gut lining also helps us avoid “leaky gut” and the associated inflammation that is known to have a variety of negative impacts on the brain. Finally, the vagus nerve, which connects the gut with the brain, has been strongly implicated too. 


All that has been demonstrated in numerous studies. In one where mice behavior was altered by manipulating their gut microbes, researches found that this influence could be nullified once their vagus nerve was severed.


The Journal of Psychiatric Research also published a report earlier this year, showing a significant and consistent difference in levels of certain beneficial bacteria between participants with bipolar disorder and those from a control group. 


All this means exciting developments in the area of “psychobiotics,” the effective treatment of psychological issues via the gut microbiome without the negative side-effects often experienced with the anti-depressants and mood-modulating drugs widely prescribed today.


But before we get too excited, it’s still early days yet. Researchers will need to leverage advances in microbiome sequencing. There is also high individual variability in what constitutes a healthy gut, so more thought has to be given in how to tailor this new approach in a way that accommodates the wide bio-individuality of gut microbes from one person to the next.


In the meantime, there appears to be no harm in incorporating more prebiotic and probiotic foods into our diet. Prebiotics are generally high-fiber foods that the good bacteria eat, and which helps them to proliferate. These include things like artichokes, asparagus, garlic, onion, unripe bananas, apples, leeks, oats and flax, most of which are best consumed raw. Probiotics are fermented foods that carry living beneficial bacteria. They help bring diversity and balance to our microbial community. Traditional examples are kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto and tempeh.


So the next time you’re feeling down, have a look at you diet. Give some thought to your gut microbes. Keeping them happy may help do the same for you.


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