Go with Your Gut! The Gut-Brain Connection

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We have all “gone with our gut,” or had a “gut-wrenching” experience sometime in our life. Whether that was jumping off the high diving board at the local pool as a kid or quitting our job to go back to school, but whatever the case may be, we chose to use these expressions for a reason because we literally felt the emotion in our gut! The brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected - there are actually more nerve cells in your gut than in your spinal cord, proving just how much communication is going on between your gut and your brain. And we know that a person's stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.

Depression can be complicated. There is no single cause with several risk factors interacting to produce the clinical symptoms of depression. And with each person having a unique set of symptoms there is no surefire way to treat, reduce, or deal with it. According to Statistics Canada's 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on Mental Health, 5.4% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a mood disorder in the previous 12 months. That’s a lot of people with depression and bipolar disorder.

Link Between Depression and Gut Bacteria

New research from Nature Microbiology (February, 2019) found that several species of gut bacteria were missing in people with depression. The researchers can’t say whether the absence is a cause or an effect of the illness, but they did show that many gut bacteria make substances such as dopamine (a key signal involved in depression) that affect nerve cell function—and maybe mood. The researchers found, for example, that Coprococcus, one of the missing gut bacteria, had a pathway related to dopamine, although they have no evidence how this might protect against depression. The same microbe also makes an anti-inflammatory substance called butyrate, and increased inflammation is implicated in depression.

These are still correlations, not causes. Researchers know that the gut microbiota can produce or stimulate the production of neurotransmitters and neuroactive compounds, such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine, and that these compounds can modulate bacterial growth. More research is definitely needed! We are looking forward to seeing the results of the research from the University of Basel in Switzerland, where they are planning a trial of fecal transplants, which can restore or alter the gut microbiome, in depressed people.

Good Gut Health Tips

In the meantime, while we wait for more research to come out, keeping our gut in tip top shape should be top of mind. Aim to cut back on that white refined sugar, which can wreck havoc on our gut. A dietary pattern high in sugar increases gut-associated inflammation which can lead to a host of troubles, including the growth of nasty bacteria. And try incorporating more fermented food in your diet such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso or kombucha for a dose of good for you bacteria and eat plenty of plant foods like vegetables and beans, as all that fibre is food for good bacteria.

Fermented Foods Warning: Fermented foods are not to be consumed by individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing immunosuppressive drugs. Pregnant women should stick with commercially fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir.

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  1. Conlon, Michael A., and Anthony R. Bird. "The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Microbiota and Human Health." Nutrients 7.1 (2014): 17-44.

  2. Simpson, H. L., and B. J. Campbell. "Review Article: Dietary Fibre–microbiota Interactions.” 42.2 (2015): 158-179.

  3. Government of Canada. (2016). What is Depression. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/mental-illness/what-depression.html

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. The Gut-Brain Connection. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection

  5. Mireia Valles-Colomer, Gwen Falony, Youssef Darzi, Ettje F. Tigchelaar, Jun Wang, Raul Y. Tito, Carmen Schiweck, Alexander Kurilshikov, Marie Joossens, Cisca Wijmenga, Stephan Claes, Lukas Van Oudenhove, Alexandra Zhernakova, Sara Vieira-Silva, Jeroen Raes. “The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression.” Nature Microbiology, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41564-018-0337-x

  6. Cheung, S. G., Goldenthal, A. R., Uhlemann, A. C., Mann, J. J., Miller, J. M., & Sublette, M. E. (2019). “Systematic Review of Gut Microbiota and Major Depression.” Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 34. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00034