There is a lot of noise out there about the gut-brain connection as it relates to our health. We are learning so much more about how a healthy gut can greatly influence our health. Research in the fields of neuropharmacology & neuroscience are revealing just how important it is for us to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria in order to achieve homeostasis within our body (and our gut) thus experiencing optimal health. This bacteria is known as our microbiome. The human microbiome is the totality of microorganisms and their collective genetic material present in or around the human body.
Michael Spector, an American journalist and staff writer for New Yorker magazine wrote the following about the human microbiome. “We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species, these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds-the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome-and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.”
Elaine Hsiao a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry & biology at Cal Tech spoke on Ted Talks in 2013 about the promise of micro based therapies and the potential to reduce more invasive types of therapy for various illness. She explained that our bodies contain 10 times more microbial cells than our own eukaryotic cells. These microbes which include bacteria as well as viruses and protozoa are part of the micro flora that make up our commensal microbiome. There are 100 trillion commensal microbes in our intestines which effect our behavior inclusive of anxiety, learning & memory, appetite and satiety. I guess it can get a little crowed in our gut…it may look something like this:
So how do these microbes in our gut contribute to brain health & help to control disease? According to Hsiao it occurs in several ways. The first is through the Vagus Nerve which contacts the gut lining and extends up to the brain stem. In this case the bacterium – Lacto Bacillus Rhamnosus effects depressive behavior in studies on mice and demonstrated that the mice treated with this bacterium exhibited less depressive symptoms.
The second way these microbes contribute to health is through activation of the immune system. Hsiao explains that 80% of our immune cells live in our gut. Immune abnormalities contribute to several neurological disorders. In this case the bacterium Bacteroides Fragillis was used to treat mice with the outcome being that these mice were more resistant to developing multiple sclerosis. This was also dependent upon a special subset of regulatory T-cells that express the marker td-25.
Another way in which microbes contribute to health is through the activation of the gut endocrine system. Gut endocrine cells are primary producers of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters. Gut microbes can also produce metabolites which impact brain function and have been shown to reduce communication deficits such as are present with autism in studies on mice.
In addition to understanding how the health of our gut influences our overall health, there are certain vitamins and minerals that when present in healthy amounts in our body produce improved mood. We can improve our gut flora depending on the foods we eat. This chart can help explain the spectrum of foods from acid to alkaline. A diet that is too acidic which is the case in many American homes increases our risk of becoming ill.
Adding in the daily amount of the following vitamins can also reduce your risk for symptoms related to depression.
Calcium is important in maintaining healthy bones and blood vessels. Some studies show that low levels of calcium in women (could not find similar studies for men) may increase symptoms related to PMS and depression.
Good food sources for calcium include: Broccoli, collard greens, kale, edamame, bok choy, figs, oranges, sardines, salmon, white beans, tofu, dairy, almonds and okra.
Chromium is a trace mineral needed to help the body metabolize food and regulate insulin. Chromium also plays an important role in increasing the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin in the brain which are all critical to regulating mood and emotions.
Food sources include: Broccoli, grapes, whole wheat products, potatoes and turkey.
Folate, or B9 supports the health and creation of cells in the body and regulates serotonin. Serotonin is the brain’s messenger, passing messages between nerve cells and assisting the brain in regulating mood among other things. Folate and B12 are often paired to treat depression. The recommended daily amount is 400 mcg (micrograms) per adult.
Foods rich in Folate include: Spinach, avocado, black eyed peas, Brussel sprouts and asparagus.
Iron transports oxygen through the bloodstream, supports muscle health and general energy. Low levels of iron leave us feeling tired and depressed. Iron deficiencies are more common in women.
Foods rich in Iron include: Soybeans, lentils, turkey (dark meat) beef or pork liver, clams, mussels, oysters, spinach and fresh ginger
Magnesium is responsible for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body…it helps to break down glucose and transform it into energy.
Foods rich in magnesium include edamame. cashews, almonds or hazelnuts for snacks; add more whole grains such as millet, quinoa and brown rice and eat fish (halibut in particular).
Omega-3 fatty acid is not naturally produced by the body but it is critical to mood health. Deficiencies in omega-3 can contribute to mood swings, fatigue, depression or decline in memory.
Salmon, sardines, tuna and rainbow trout contain omega-3s. Chia seeds are also a good source. Vegetarians who rely on plant based sources may wish to consider supplements as plant and animal omega-3 differ.
B6 promotes the health of our neurotransmitters. A deficiency of B6 can lead to a weakened immune system, depression, confusion and short term anemia. B6 is known to relieve mood related symptoms of PMS. RDA is 1.3 mg daily for adults.
Foods containing healthy amounts of B6 include: Chickpeas, tuna, Atlantic salmon, chicken or turkey (white meat), sunflower seeds, pistachios, bananas, lean pork, dried prunes, avocado, spinach and lean beef.
B12 is critical to good brain health. Our mood depends largely on the signals from our brain making B12 one of the most important nutrients. B12 synthesizes a group of nutrients that are critical for neurological function. Low levels of B12 can contribute to increased fatigue, depression, lack of concentration, mania and paranoia.
B12 is found naturally in animal proteins such as eggs, beef, fatty fish and pork. It is also added to enriched cereals and breads. Taking a supplement is wise as the body can store what it does not use for a later time.
Vitamin D – Most of us are vitamin D deficient. It is recommended that we take a supplement to assure we take in enough vitamin D. Rates of depression increase with vitamin D deficiency.
Few foods contain vitamin D naturally but Salmon, eggs, chanterelle mushrooms and milk are good food sources.
Zinc protects our digestive system as well as promoting a healthy immune system. Research has shown that healthy levels of zinc in the body reduce the risk of depression. Zinc has been known to enhance the effectiveness of antidepressants in some studies.
Foods rich in zinc include: pumpkin seeds, cashews, Swiss cheese, crab and pork loin.
Eating foods that balance blood sugar levels can also reduce the potential for fluctuation in mood and improve general health. You can do so by following these simple steps:
Increase whole grains. Whole grains release glucose into the bloodstream more slowly and evenly sustaining blood sugar levels and thus your energy. It is not so hear to do so. Eat power snacks that provide energy without weighing you down such as nuts, yogurt, fruit. Think of food in this way: carbs provide energy, protein helps to maintain that energy and healthy fats extend energy. So make the most of good carbs, fats and proteins in your diet?
Eat Well, Be Well