By Uma Naidoo, M.D.
As humans we have unique genetic material and part of this involves our unique microbiome, approximately 39 trillion cells! The human microbiome is a community of these trillions of different bacteria which need to remain in good balance for us to remain healthy, both mind and body.
The gut comprises the enteric nervous system, a system of over 500 million nerves in the gut which communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve. The enteric nervous system is also sometimes called the 2nd brain and these 2 are connected via the vagus nerve and there is an ongoing two-way communication between the brain and the gut.
What this means for us is that there is an actual connection between what we eat and our emotions.
Our gut microbiome determines many of our emotions through the interactions with our immune system, as well as through the relapse of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Did you know that 90% of our serotonin receptors are found in our gut? Serotonin is a neurochemical is responsible for helping mood and anxiety and also plays a large role in digestion, sleeping, and libido. Clearly, it’s a major player for all of us.
In the relatively newer field of nutritional psychiatry we help patients understand how gut health and diet can positively or negatively affect their mood. When someone is prescribed an antidepressant such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most common side effects are gut-related, and many people temporarily experience nausea, diarrhea, or gastrointestinal problems. This again is because of that two-way communication.
The gut-brain connection therefore offers us a greater understanding of the connection between diet and disease, including depression and anxiety.
When the balance between the good and bad bacteria is disrupted, diseases may occur. If you have taken an antibiotic, when this medication is killing off an infection it also kills off some of the good bacteria in your gut. This can lead to an imbalance called dysbiosis.
What happens with dysbiosis is that:
- some good bacteria are damaged
- damages lead to a leaky gut or intestinal permeability
- all of this causes toxins from these bacteria to get into the bloodstream and cause inflammation in the body and the brain
Examples of such diseases include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cognitive and mood problems.
Now that we understand this, how do we help ourselves feel better through how we eat?
To help flourish a happy and healthy gut, include a wide diversity of whole plant foods, lots of fiber, and prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods. Meat, poultry and seafood do not contain fiber, but all plants and fruit do. In addition, these provide an abundance of vitamins, minerals and bioactive substances that help your brain and body. For example, you’ve heard that blueberries have antioxidants. Prebiotic foods help to feed the good bacteria in the gut; probiotics are the good bacteria which benefit your gut.
Another important factor about fiber is that our good gut bacteria need to be fed with fiber to flourish! By eating fiber these bacteria produce very helpful short chain fatty acids which have many positive effects for our brain and our body. So, fiber makes us flourish!
A study suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may be protective against depression. Researchers also outlined an Antidepressant Food Scale, which lists 12 antidepressant nutrients related to the prevention and treatment of depression. Some of the foods containing these nutrients are oysters, mussels, salmon, watercress, spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, and strawberries.
A better diet can help, but it’s only one aspect of treatment. If you have severe symptoms such as suicidal ideation, mania or psychosis you may need a medication to help up through this acute phase first.
Some tips for a healthy happy gut and mind include:
- “fiber, fiber, fiber” from fruit and vegetables, whole grains and legumes feed your good bacteria
- switch out potato chips for low calorie but tasty oven roasted kale chips instead
- eat an orange and forget the grocery store OJ. An orange adds back fiber, vitamins and minerals and avoids added sugars. A cup of OJ has one-fifth the amount of fiber and 3 times the amount of sugar as an orange!
- skip packaged and processed foods as the food additives and preservatives that disrupt the healthy bacteria in the gut
- add prebiotic rich foods such as onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke to name a few
- add probiotic rich foods such as plain yogurt without added sugars and fermented foods such as kefir (unsweetened), sauerkraut, miso, kombucha or kimchi
Michelin-starred chef David Bouley described Dr. Uma Naidoo as the world’s first “triple threat” in the food as medicine space: She is a Harvard trained psychiatrist, Professional Chef graduating with her culinary schools’ most coveted award, and a Nutrition Specialist. Her niche work is in Nutritional Psychiatry and she is regarded both nationally and internationally as a medical pioneer in this field.
In her role as a Clinical Scientist, Dr. Naidoo founded and directs the first hospital-based clinical service in Nutritional Psychiatry in the USA. She is the Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) & Director of Nutritional Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital Academy while serving on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Naidoo graduated from the Harvard-Longwood Psychiatry Residency Training Program in Boston during which she received several awards, some of which included a “Junior Investigator Award” (American Psychiatric Association); “Leadership Development for Physicians and Scientists” award (Harvard), as well as being the very first psychiatrist to be awarded the coveted “Curtis Prout Scholar in Medical Education”.
The American Psychiatric Association has asked her to author the first academic text in Nutritional Psychiatry. In addition, she is the author of the upcoming title: “This is Your Brain on Food” to be released August 4th, 2020.