Did you know that up to 95 percent of serotonin and 50 percent of dopamine – vital brain chemicals which impact our happiness, wellbeing, reward and motivation – is made in the gut?
Leading Clinical Nutritionist Ben Warren is touring the country this month, helping Kiwis understand the strong link between what they eat and how they feel. We caught up with Ben about the latest research into our interlinked gut-brain connection and how nourishing your gut can create a more calm, joyful and peaceful mind.
Can you tell us a bit about the connection between gut health and mental health?
We’ve probably all experienced a gut feeling, tummy in knots, or butterflies. And the research is starting to show that this is more than ‘just a feeling’. In fact, it turns out that the gut might actually be our ‘second brain’ after all, and its health can impact our emotions and mental wellbeing.
Not only is the brain talking to the gut and the rest of the body, but it goes the other way too. The gut is talking to the brain which impacts how we think and feel on a daily level.
This feedback loop is known as the gut brain axis – a two-way communication pathway. The gut talks to the brain in a number of ways – through the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, through neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and via the immune system.
At the core of this is the microbiota, the trillions of bacteria and organisms that live synergistically with us. Research is looking heavily at these mind-altering microorganisms and the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour, specifically looking at emotions and the mechanisms of things such as probiotics and fermented foods and their ability to control and change how we think and feel; which makes supporting your gut an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating mental wellness.
Kombucha is being touted as the hottest thing for gut health at the moment, how effective is kombucha and other fermented foods at restoring gut health?
While it’s early days for the research on these traditional foods, the research is currently pointing towards having a broader, wider, deeper, more diverse microbiome (primarily the organisms living in our gut – although we have them elsewhere too) – as being associated with better gut health and also our whole body health too. Traditionally fermented foods can help contribute to this broader, wider, more diverse microbiome.
In an article published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology titled, ‘Fermented foods, microbiota and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry’ (2014), they answered this exact question. The take home message? Yes, fermented foods are beneficial, not only to our physical health but also to our mental health due to their ability to mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress. In another study looking at neuroticism and social anxiety, a higher frequency of fermented food consumption was associated with fewer symptoms of social anxiety, suggesting that fermented foods containing probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety.
When it comes to kombucha, I haven’t seen any specific research. However, if made traditionally as a fermented tea, it should contain strains of friendly bacteria as well as the beneficial metabolic byproducts of bacteria fermentation. I do have concerns with the commercialisation of kombucha, particularly how they are making it. They are sometimes using a lot of sugar and not letting it naturally ferment or carbonate, instead carbonating artificially like a regular fizzy drink. I would stick to trusted brands – the ones I go for are New Leaf, Organic Mechanic and Good Buzz.
What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, and how critical are these to our gut health?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that have been shown to have a known benefit to human health, whereas prebiotics are the food that the beneficial bacteria need to survive. Like us, bacteria need food to live!
Our body is home to trillions of bacteria, and it is these bacteria that digest key aspects of our food to synthesise neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine and their precursors. In fact, up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut by the microbiome. Adding in probiotics (as a supplement or naturally through fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha or coconut yoghurt) is a great way to nourish your gut health back into balance by adding in a diverse range of beneficial bacteria.
We can support our bacteria by eating prebiotic-rich foods such as beans, legumes, bananas, raw onion or raw garlic. Eating a variety of vegetables will support diversity as different foods feed different types of bacteria.
How are antibiotics and their overuse contributing to poor gut health?
There is good research indicating that overuse of antibiotics is contributing to poor gut health. However, I’m not suggesting that you don’t take antibiotics, as they can be lifesaving in certain situations! Rather, I’d recommend taking a high-quality probiotic alongside the antibiotics and consuming fermented foods to minimise the impact on the microbiome.
Are supplements all they’ve cracked up to be and what should we be supplementing?
Absolutely, the increase in research on the benefits of probiotics for human health has been exponential over the last 20 years. Researchers are now isolating specific strains that impact mood, for example in one study looking at Bacillus coagulans(MTCC5856) on major depression with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the improvement in depression and IBS symptoms was statistically significant and clinically meaningful. In another study looking at Lactobacillus helviticus and Bifido bactaterium longum taken for 30 days they found it decreased global scores of anxiety and depression. It’s very early days in the research currently and there’s a long way to go, but there’s definitely enough research to justify their use.
What are some of your key tips for fueling our modern day lives to get best gut – and brain – health outcomes?
• Eat a wholefood diet focusing on a variety of vegetables
• Take a high-quality probiotic with a wide variety of proven strains
• Minimise sugars and artificial sweeteners
• Consume fermented foods as part of your daily food intake
• Consume chicken and bone broths to support gut healing
• Daily movement or exercise can help to modulate the biome by 20 percent!