Guest post: Gut health and mental health: is there a link?
Dr Megan Rossi, author of Eat Yourself Healthy, talks about the latest research linking mental health to our gut microbiota
The Gut Health Doctor
Posted on: Fri 27-Sep-19 10:57:03
(35 comments )
We can try to ignore them all we like, but the facts are simply inescapable. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem this year. Take a second to let that sink in, one in four. When it comes to postnatal depression, the stats aren’t much better.
Fortunately, thanks to the growing number of initiatives aimed at increasing awareness and support for the millions of people suffering in silence, this baffling statistic has started to receive the attention it so rightfully deserves.
But what is it that’s causing these high rates of low mood, and what can we all do about it?
There are many factors thought to contribute to poor mental health, some of which are modifiable, such as physical activity, and others, which we can’t change, like our genetics. More recently, a new modifiable risk factor has been proposed, and believe it or not it’s the trillions of microbes that call our gut home (which scientists call our ‘gut microbiota’). Identification of this new, and somewhat unexpected, culprit has stemmed from some fascinating research that shows a two-way communication between our gut microbiota and our brain, commonly referred to as the gut-brain-axis.
So, what does the latest science say about the link between our gut microbiota and mental health? Of course, in research and science things are never straightforward, but there is growing evidence to support a role for our gut health in managing (alongside any necessary medications) mental health problems - and even to prevent them. To help explain a little more, there are three pieces to the gut-mental health-axis that I want to share…
Several studies have now shown that people with depression have different gut microbes to people without depression
Several studies have now shown that people with depression have different gut microbes to people without depression. But (and there is always a but) this type of research is called observational research which is rather weak in terms of scientific rigor. With observational research it’s a bit like the chicken and egg scenario; is it that people with depression are less likely to eat certain foods that feed specific bacteria, or could it be that specific bacteria are triggering depression? To help tackle this question we need to look at interventional studies.
A landmark probiotic study from 2017 randomised a group of pregnant mothers into two groups. One group received a specific probiotic (live beneficial bacteria) and the other group received a placebo (known as a fake probiotic) throughout their pregnancy and until their baby was six months old. At the end of the study, all the mothers had their mental health assessed and fascinatingly the mothers in the probiotic group reported a significantly lower depression score compared to the placebo group. Importantly both the mothers and researchers were blinded to the intervention, so didn’t know who received the actual probiotics verse placebo. Although incredible exciting, it wouldn’t be fair to over-hype this single study - it’s still early days for this research. Personally I do think there is hope for this idea of using probiotics to manage mental health, referred to as psychobiotics. However, I also think we need to be smarter and more specific with our choice of probiotic types - a one-size-fits-all model is very unlikely.
One of my favourite studies randomised people with moderate to severe depression to receive either gut-boosting dietary advice delivered by a dietitian for 12 weeks OR a type of counselling to act as the ‘placebo’ intervention (this was done to make sure that any benefit in the diet group wasn’t just because of the social interaction with the dietitian). What they found was really quite remarkable. Those following the Mediterranean diet had a MUCH greater improvement in happiness levels compared to placebo. In fact, over 30% of those in the Mediterranean diet group improved to a level deemed as no longer clinically depressed (using depression questionnaires), although it is important to note that many were still on baseline medications. Now, this particular study didn’t measure gut bacteria, but it’s well known that the Mediterranean dietary pattern has a positive impact on our bugs - raising the big question, could this benefit in happiness on the diet be due, at least in part, to an alteration in the gut-brain axis? Maybe.
In my new book ‘Eat Yourself Healthy’ I talk more about the gut:brain link along with practical strategies and easy recipes to help you to become healthier and happier from the inside out. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
Eat Yourself Healthy by Dr Megan Rossi is published by Penguin Life, Priced £16.99
Dr Megan Rossi will be returning to the thread to answer user questions
By Dr Megan Rossi
CAn you please link or at least provide source info re the studies you refer to rather than just “landmark” and “my favourite”
Or could it be sugar causing mental health problems?
Damn good job 70% chocolate is good for stomach bacteria then eh? And red wine.
I've read this before and I do believe in it a little. Since cutting down on sugar getting more water and fruits in to me. And drinking a probiotic each day I don't really suffer from low moods anymore as such. Maybe it is the sugar as we know that can cause mood swings from the crashes it causes to blood sugars
I am 48 and just found out i am 5 weeks pregnant. I am in absolute shock. I have 3 grown up children and 2 grandkids. What are the risks at my age. I just don't know what to do.
Samcandy14, I think you should start a thread ?
48 is ok , I had both mine in my forties.
There is 1 million percent a link. In the not too distant future most illnesses will eventually be shown to be linked to gut health. People get pissed of when you say that sunlight and exercise and diet and sleep are key to mental health because they think it diminishes the seriousness of such issues. It’s to our detriment as a society not to focus on lifestyle and diet to deal with mental health issues instead of focusing on enabling people to identify strongly with mental health problems as though it was an inescapable part of them. I have MS and I suffered with severe anxiety for years. Only when I began to inform myself about diet for my MS did my anxiety magically disappear. MS is a disease originating in the gut, as are many mental health conditions.
Sugar certainly will change gut bacteria balance so it's probably part of the bigger picture
I bought a friend some pre and probiotic capsules in May. He's been taking them since then and bought more as they've helped so much. His overall health has improved and mental health has dramatically.
If very much like to know if there really is any evidence that dry capsule probiotics such as biokult have any effect on the over all gut bacteria?
I noticed a difference in general body flora balance when I started eating love yogurt daily and do believe there's a lot we don't know about the impact of the gut and the body and the gut and the brain.
Is it wasted money to use capsules?
It's interesting that you mention the mothers' research as Boots own pregnancy vitamins around 7 years ago included a probiotic (two capsules.) They stopped them around a year or so later and switched to the fish oil tablet.
I’d taking supplement, is any particular time of day recommended? And should got drinks be avoided immediately before and after?
Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.
The causes of depression are fairly complex. How do you account for the apparent increase in rates of depression across the world. And why lower rates in Japan? And high rates in the US. In your view does this link to diet? Or something else about culture and society?
could we see the references for the studies mentioned?
Sounds fascinating - would love the links to the study, including number of participants, statistical tests for significance used, and odds/hazard ratios too. Thanks!
This is something I'm really interested in. Michael Mosleys "clever guts diet" and "Gut" by Giulia Enders are both very informative reads, for anyone interested (I read both from my local library). I definitely notice a big flare up in anxiety if something knocks my gut health (eg taking antibiotics). I make my own sauerkraut and kombucha now to try and help get some good probiotic foods in
Just started on Kefir goats milk from a local farm. Some side effects, guess time will tell.
Really interesting subject. I'm planning to order this book.
Does home made yoghurt have as many beneficial bacteria if you make it with non-dairy milk such as soya or coconut?
Very interesting and good for thought.
People with IBD have a higher rate of depression and anxiety. Loads of articles here: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=ibd+and+depression&hl=en&assdt=0&ass_vis=1&oi=scholart
So there seems that there is a link. Gut health is probably one of the most important things we should look after, but it's hard to know where to start!
@MNHQ Will Megan be answering questions please?
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