Finally, an excuse to avoid seeing your in-laws this Christmas! Spending the festive period with your spouse’s family ‘may trigger changes to your gut bacteria linked to depression’
- Study found decrease in ruminococcaceae genes in those staying with in-laws
- The genes are part of trillions living in our gut which send signals to our brain
- Previous research shows decrease in the genes triggers depression and stress
It is no secret that spending Christmas with your in-laws can be a stressful experience.
But now scientists have proven it can actually trigger changes to your gut bacteria which have been linked to depression.
Researchers looked at how participants’ gut microbiome changed when they spent the festive season with their own family versus their partner’s.
They found people who spent Christmas with in-laws had lower levels of one bug, a theme also thought to play a role in depression and stress.
Whereas those who stayed with their own family saw an increase in ‘feel good’ genes in the intestine.
Scientists found people who spent Christmas with their in-laws experienced changes in their gut microbiome linked to depression (stock)
There is evidence trillions of bacteria in the gut influence parts of the brain involved in emotion by a communication path known as the ‘brain-gut axis’.
A change in diet, alcohol and psychological stress can all disrupt the microbiome, which also plays an important role in the immune system.
But the exact mechanism through which stress affects gut health is still unknown.
Studies have shown humans suffering from depression and mice exposed to chronic stress have significantly lower levers of ruminococcaceae genes.
MICROBIOME: DOES IT CONTROL EVERYTHING?
Researchers now estimate that a typical human body is made up of about 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion bacteria.
These are key in harvesting energy from our food, regulating our immune function, and keeping the lining of our gut healthy.
Interest in, and knowledge about, the microbiota has recently exploded as we now recognise just how essential they are to our health.
A healthy, balanced microbiome helps us break down foods, protects us from infection, trains our immune system and manufactures vitamins, such as K and B12.
It also sends signals to our brain that can affect mood, anxiety and appetite.
Imbalances in the gut are increasingly being linked to a range of conditions. Last year, scientists at California Institute of Technology found the first ever link between the gut and Parkinson’s symptoms.
The composition of our gut microbiota is partly determined by our genes but can also be influenced by lifestyle factors such as our diet, alcohol intake and exercise, as well as medications.
Researchers from the Amsterdam University Medical Centre, led by Dr Nicolien de Clercq, professor of vascular medicine, looked at 24 participants.
Sixteen volunteers visited their in-laws while eight spent the holidays with their own family.
The team of academics took faecal samples on December 23 and again on December 27 and studied them for changes in DNA.
In participants visiting in-laws, there was a significant decrease in all ruminococcus species – suggesting they had experienced greater psychological stress.
Both groups consumed a similar amount of alcohol and ate the same kinds of foods.
This, scientists say, means they can rule out those environmental factors causing the change in gut bacteria.
The study was an observational study and so participants were not questioned about their mental or physical wellbeing.
Writing in the study, published in the Human Microbiome Journal, the scientists said: ‘Since we did not score the level of (experienced) stress during Christmas visits, we can only postulate that the difference in biomarker signature between visiting family and in-laws was due to stress.
‘Beyond known factors like diet, gender, BMI, age, physical exercise, pets and individual microbiome variations, there are many other yet to be identified factors that may have influenced our outcomes.
‘This study relied on a small group of volunteers as participants, and analysis of a greater pool of individuals would help to identify trends in microbiota changes with greater accuracy.
‘Participants had to report their food intake, without supervision from the research-team.
‘Despite the standardised questionnaires, the embarrassing and confronting nature of facing one’s food intake, especially during Christmas, and the inconvenience of filling out a dietary assessment are likely to have influenced the reporting.’
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO IMPROVE GUT BACTERIA?
- Eat a diverse range of foods that contribute to the growth of different types of bacteria. The more species of bacteria you have, the greater number of health benefits they may be able to contribute to.
- Fibrous foods are believed to improve the gut bacteria. Fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes are high in fibre. Choose wholewheat foods such as brown pasta and rice over white to get more fibre.
- Sugar, alcohol and artificial sweeteners are often advised to be cut down on to improve gut bacteria.
- Probiotics, which are live microorganisms, may benefit your health by changing the overall composition of the microbiota. They are found in a range of natural food sources, particularly fermented foods.
- Prebiotics are foods that ‘fertilise’ and feed the probiotics. They include leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, beans and cold potatoes.