You may have seen scientists on the news getting excited about the psychobiotic revolution.
It sounds terrifying, but rather than The Terminator come to life, it’s actually discoveries that are being made about the gut-brain axis, and how the bacteria in your belly may be directly responsible for regulating your mood, and mental health, by communicating with your brain.
This sounds like the kind of thing RSNG MINDSET fans should know about, so we’ve put together an explainer to answer some obvious questions, and give you the hacks to find happiness through your gut…
So, how are my guts talking to my brain, other than to say ‘ice cream please’? In three ways. Firstly, microbes in the gut can produce almost every neurotransmitter in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. Special gut cells (called enterochromaffin cells) were discovered in 2017 that can detect these neurotransmitters and send a pulse straight up the vagus nerve, and into the brain.
Secondly, they influence immune cells in the gut, producing chemicals that affect the brain. Thirdly, they make chemicals that enter the bloodstream, some of which make it into the brain.
The same bacterium found in live yoghurt has powerful anti-anxiety effects in mice
My guts are leaking into my brain? How is that going to improve my mood, exactly? Chill out – this is a new science, so it’s not exact but we already know that gut bacteria boosts physical health by producing vitamins and helping us to get energy from fibrous food.
Now, scientists have found that the same bacterium found in live yoghurt has powerful anti-anxiety effects in mice. A recent study on healthy college students who were given regular supermarket probiotics were less susceptible to panic, worry and negative moods.
So, I should just go and bang a family pack of Yakult? Not so fast – you shouldn’t need to. A healthy gut biome will send healthy signals to your brain, while an unhealthy one could contribute to poor mental health, and the effect goes both ways, so chemicals produced in your brain can reach your gut, and influence your gut biome.
Depression can cause your brain’s fight-or-flight switchboard (the amygdala) to go into overdrive and swell, while at the same time your memory banks (the hippocampus) can shrink, potentially affecting your memory, and ability to self-help.
OK, how can I get a healthy bellyful of bacteria? The trick is to boost the prebiotics in your diet (this is what feeds the bacteria; probiotics are the bacteria themselves.) Fortunately, there are literally thousands of foods that contain prebiotics. Look for plant-based foods like whole grains, seeds, nuts, pulses and fruit.
Well I love a chickpea curry. In fact, I eat quite healthily already, but you’ve traumatised me with the idea of a toxic chemical spill in my brain – got a more concrete target I can aim for? Yes, handily scientists have found that people with at least 30 plant-based elements in their weekly diet have a better range of gut bacteria. This has been shown to be linked with better mental health but also improved heart health and the ability to manage body weight.
Coffee bean grinders are inexpensive and make short work of grinding down seeds
OK, so where’s the villain in this tale – any foods I should avoid? Well, if you have a Deliveroo habit then sack it off. According to Dr Lisa Mosconi, the author of Brain Food: ‘It is nothing less than crucial to the health of your brain that you don’t make takeout a regular everyday habit.’
Unless it’s organic and high-quality (ie expensive), your takeout will be packed with bargain basement, industrially produced ingredients. ‘All of this adds up to you ingesting more hormones, antibiotics and pesticides than genuine food and its nutrients… these foods are typically cooked with refined oils and sugars, trans fats and more sodium than you can imagine.’
Urghh, but the healthy stuff you mentioned is all a bit fibrous – are there any tastier hacks? You’re in luck – chemicals called polyphenols are excellent prebiotics (apparently 95% of them remain intact during digestion and make it through to the colon to be bio-transformed by microbes). Most kinds of berries are packed with them, and they’re present in dark chocolate and red wine too.
Just don’t overdo the ‘80% cocoa chocolate and Cote du Rhone combo’ – refined sugar and alcohol make your guts upchuck…
WHAT NEXT? Need a healthy prebiotic smoothie recipe? Then check out the RSNG interview with Chris Hemsworth’s chef, Sergio Perera.
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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.