It is a dark and gloomy time of year, so not surprisingly a lot of people feel low. In fact in any given week one in six of us will experience a common mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.
The medical approach may be to prescribe drugs or psychotherapy, as well as lifestyle changes, but these approaches don’t suit everyone. So I’m delighted to say there is now fresh thinking about how to treat depression, based on a growing understanding about the importance of the microbiome.
This is the two to three pounds of microbes which live deep in our guts, and which play an integral role in many of the body’s systems.
A Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables, oily fish, full-fat yogurt, olive oil, wholegrains, nuts and legumes could help develop good gut bacteria
Changing what we eat can ensure that we do not miss out of crucial bacteria – which can even affect our mental health
Now, mounting evidence suggest it may also be influencing our brains. And because your microbiome changes rapidly in response to what you eat, this means that changing your diet can have an impact on your mental health.
You may be missing crucial bacteria
From a mental health perspective, this is radical stuff.
Yet ever since I began researching the life that lives in our digestive tract for one of my recent books, Clever Guts, it has become increasingly obvious to me just how important diet is when it comes to mental wellbeing.
So I was delighted to come across two big studies last week which really bang home that message.
The first was a study by scientists in Belgium. It is based on something known as the Flemish Gut Flora Project.
For this project more than 1,000 people in Belgium had stool samples collected and analysed. Like the rest of the population, many of those people are reasonably happy, while others suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety. When the scientists compared the samples of those who were satisfied with life with those who were depressed or anxious, they got a big surprise.
There were two particular kinds of bacteria, called Coprococcus and Dialister, both of which were almost always missing from the guts of people with depression, but present in the guts of those who were feeling good about life.
Scientists are now hoping to identify more gut bacteria with antidepressant qualities, with the ultimate goal of creating a probiotic pill packed with mood-busting bugs
To make sure they were really on to something, the scientists repeated the study by looking at stool samples from more than 1,000 people from the Netherlands, and got similar results.
Next, they started looking to see what chemicals those particular bacteria produce.
They discovered that Coprococcus seems to play an especially important role in the production of dopamine. This hormone is also known as the feelgood chemical, and many antidepressants work by boosting levels of it in the brain.
Coprococcus is also very good at turning the fibre we eat into an anti-inflammatory substance called butyrate. This is important because widespread inflammation not only increases your risk of heart disease and cancer, but it is strongly linked to an increased risk of being depressed.
Anything that reduces inflammation is likely to be good for your physical and mental health. It is an exciting finding, and the scientists are now hoping to identify more gut bacteria with antidepressant qualities, with the ultimate goal of creating a probiotic pill packed with mood-busting bugs.
Can you really eat yourself happier?
While we’re waiting for that, there is a much simpler way to boost your ‘good bacteria’ and improve your mood, and that is to change what you eat.
Another big study out last week showed just how close the link is between food and mood.
For this study Dr Joseph Firth from the University of Manchester looked at all the recent clinical trials that had assessed the impact of diet on mental health. His study combined data from 16 randomised controlled trials covering a total of 45,826 patients.
One of his main findings was that eating what he described as ‘more nutrient-dense meals which are high in fibre and vegetables’ had a very positive impact on mood, as did cutting right back on fast food and refined sugars.
In other words, eating lots of fast food is not only going to make you fat, but depressed. From Dr Firth’s study, this seems to be particularly true for women, where they also found a strong link not only between diet and depression, but between diet and anxiety.
The good news is that if you change your diet, this will have a swift and almost immediate impact on your gut bacteria, and presumably on your brain.
No one would suggest that food is an alternative to prescribed medication, or other treatments for mental health problems. Always follow the advice of your doctor.
But according to the research, for a biome-boosting, mood-enhancing way of eating that can enjoyed by everyone, cut back on processed and takeaway foods, processed meats, refined grains, such as those in white bread, pasta, cakes and pastries, sugary drinks and snacks.
Instead, switch to a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables, oily fish, full-fat yogurt, olive oil, wholegrains, nuts and legumes.
For plenty of recipes that certainly enhance my mood when I eat them, visit cleverguts.com.
- Dr Michael Mosley is currently touring the UK, sharing stories from his long television career as well as the findings from his recent bestseller, The Fast 800. The book, an update on his original 5:2 diet, shows you how to lose weight fast and keep it off, long-term. Details of where he will be performing and when can be found at michaelmosley.co.uk.
My knee scooter is keeping me moving
Dr Michael Mosely, pictured, has a special ‘knee scooter’ to keep him mobile while he recovered from a torn Achilles tendon
Regular readers of this column will know that a couple of weeks ago I tore my Achilles tendon – the ligament that attaches the calf muscle to the heel – while running. Or to be more accurate, while falling.
I tripped, there was a terrible pain in the back of my leg and the next thing I knew I was on the ground, rolling about in agony.
Allowing it to heal means keeping it immobilised in a special boot. It also means I won’t be able to put weight on my left leg for many weeks.
This is particularly unfortunate because I started my first live theatre tour of the UK last week and will be performing at 38 different theatres over the next two months.
I’ve found that having a decent set of crutches is essential as, except for very short distances, hopping is not a realistic way of getting around. But I have also recently discovered the Knee Walker, or Knee Scooter.
It looks a bit like a kid’s tricycle, but instead of sitting on it, you kneel on it, relieving the weight on your damaged leg.
It is much less tiring than crutches and frees up my hands, making simple things such as getting a cup of coffee easier. It also means that I can now whizz around the stage, much to the amusement of the audience.