We live in an age where anxiety and depression are at epidemic levels, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of death before heart disease and cancer, Parkinson’s has more than doubled in older men, and 1.1 per cent of people are estimated to be on the autism spectrum. Now breakthrough science is linking these brain-centred conditions to the trillions of microbes in the gut.
One of the biggest areas of research today focuses on the gut-brain axis; that’s the two-way communication between our brains and the microbes, bacteria and fungi living in the gut, known as the microbiota. There is evidence to show that the state of our gut – sometimes called our second brain – can profoundly influence our mood and behaviour.
We are witnessing a paradigm shift in neuroscience that could revolutionise the way we prevent and treat mental health problems and neuropsychiatric conditions,’ says psychiatrist and leading researcher Professor Ted Dinan of University College Cork. His work centres on how these ‘moody microbes’ influence depression and other stress-related disorders. Improve the nature of your microbes and, crucially, increase their diversity with a Mediterranean-type diet and supplements (pre- and probiotics) and trials show that a significant number of people find their mental health improves. Professor Dinan is now involved in ongoing research into a live micro-organism known as Bifidobacterium longum 1714, which is showing promise in reducing stress and improving memory.
Writer Rachel Kelly, who has a long-term history of severe depression, has first-hand experience of the benefits of ‘happy foods’. After her GP suggested that targeted nutrition might help her, Rachel consulted nutritionist Alice Mackintosh for advice about dietary shifts that might improve her gut health and, hopefully, help her symptoms of insomnia, low mood, brain fog, anxiety and lack of energy.
Rachel’s first step was to cut the ‘crap’: carbonated drinks, refined sugar, aspartame (synthetic sweetener), additives and processed and junk foods. She swapped them for a wide range of plant-based foods, different vegetables and fruit, plus fermented foods such as kefir, yoghurt and sauerkraut, and omega-3 rich oily fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.
‘What was spectacular was that I began to feel much calmer almost instantly,’ Rachel says. ‘I realised that my brain sent messages to my stomach and vice versa. I found it incredibly positive and still do.’ Rachel and Alice subsequently co-wrote The Happy Kitchen (Short Books, £14.99*) with recipes for eating to stay calm and well.
Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, who set up the British Gut Project, specialises in the effect of the microbiota on obesity. He points out that since the bugs in our gut also affect our appetite, personalised microbiota analysis and specific dietary shifts may prove an effective way to combat this major concern.
Professor Spector adds that compounds called polyphenols are ‘rocket fuel for microbes’. And you can find them in – hurrah! – dark chocolate, coffee, nuts, extra virgin olive oil and berries.
3 of the best digestive-system helpers
1. Hurly Burly Raw Slaws, from £4.99, abelandcole.co.uk. Naturally fermented, these super-tasty slaws are made from all organic ingredients. Choose from Turmeric & Cumin, Lemon & Ginger or Jalapeno & Oregano.
2. Purearth Kefir, £3.50, purearth.co.uk. The sparkling grapefruit water kefir, also organic, is the first ‘healthy’ drink I choose to buy and – untypically – my husband would, too. Brilliant when you’re feeling under par. Also in Apple & Mint, Coconut & Lime and Spirulina.
3. OptiBac Probiotics For Every Day, £11.50, victoriahealth.com. A doctor friend suggested this one-a-day formula that contains six different live cultures plus fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a type of prebiotic.
*The Happy Kitchen by Rachel Kelly and Alice Mackintosh is available from Short Books, for £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 (A 20 per cent discount) until 8 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; free p&p on orders over £15.
Feature by Sarah Stacey