For your garden to flourish you need to feed it with quality fertiliser and compost – not just dump a load of rubbish on the soil. Our gut isn’t too dissimilar; it contains our microbiome – a complex microscopic ‘garden’ of billions of different tiny microbes that are vital to our health. If we feed it junk – such as processed foods, sweetened fizzy drinks and biscuits – we’re smothering those microbes.
These microbes act as mini chemical factories producing substances that help us to lose weight and reduce inflammation among other things. We’re also discovering that they play a key role in our mood by processing natural antidepressants such as tryptophan (from foods including eggs and turkey) which is required in order to make serotonin (known to reduce anxiety and depression) and dopamine (which increases pleasure and motivation). A poor diet and lifestyle is also associated with ‘leaky gut’ – where undigested food and toxins leak into the bloodstream through a weakened gut lining – which is linked to lethargy, brain fog and low mood.
The microbes communicate with the brain via the ‘gut-brain axis’, which allows signals to travel in both directions. This means that what happens in the mind can affect the gut too, altering the composition and activity of the microbes – for example, being stressed can lead to diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and bloating.
However, a bit of ‘gut gardening’ – by incorporating in your diet prebiotics (fertilisers to feed your gut bacteria) and probiotics (healthy bacteria that comes from foods or supplements to reseed a depleted microbiome) – can go a long way to relieving those symptoms and to creating a more positive mood. The best sources are as follows:
Natural prebiotics: a Mediterranean-style diet containing plenty of vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains. The diet also includes olive oil, oily fish, some fruit, full-fat yoghurt, cheese and a little meat. A study in 2017 found a group of 67 depressed people with poor diets who switched to this regime had a significant improvement in depressive symptoms.
Natural probiotics: fermented foods such as sauerkraut, live yoghurt and kefir (a fermented milk drink) deliver healthy bacteria such as bifidobacteria and lactobacillus that make it safely through your stomach and down to the far end of the gut where they work their magic.
Probiotic supplements: off-the-shelf products such as Zenflore by Precisionbiotics may help reduce mild forms of anxiety and stress, according to researchers at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork. In another trial, healthy volunteers who took a probiotic experienced fewer periods of sadness, distress, anxiety or negative thoughts after four weeks.
Remember, if you take probiotics but go back to a poor diet those microbes won’t survive for long. Feed them well, with a rich and varied Mediterranean-style diet, and your gut garden will bloom, helping to keep you relaxed, happy and healthy.
Your diagnosis decoded
Dysmenorrhoea, mastalgia, dysuria, scrofula… Do these mean anything to you? I had to look up the last one (although best not to google the images).
This is the sort of language you’re likely to find in letters about your medical condition from your hospital doctor to your GP – a copy of which you also receive in the post (translation: dysmenorrhoea = painful periods; mastalgia = painful breasts; dysuria = pain passing urine; scrofula = swollen glands from TB). Patients are often confused and concerned and visit their GP, envelope in hand, seeking reassurance that they are not going to die from hyperhidrosis (excess sweating) or even iatrophobia (fear of doctors). Guidance has now been issued for medical letters like these to be written directly to patients in plain English, with a copy to their GP rather than the other way around. So you won’t have to get the dictionary out or consult Dr Google – and nor will we.
If you have a question you would like answered, email firstname.lastname@example.org