The involvement of other bodily systems in the pathogenesis of psychological disorders is well established. The reproductive system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, respiratory system, and the immune system are all altered during a stressful event.
Modern naturopathy acknowledges that there is no single causative factor in psychological disorders, instead it is recognised that there are a range of factors including stress, dietary, and lifestyle habits (such as nutritional deficiency, substance abuse, genetics, and hormonal factors). But what role does the gut play?
When I was in high school, I learned that the brain controls everything in the body.
What we now know, is that the gut can also control the brain, and the gut and brain are communicating all the time via the gut-brain axis. This communication influences our mood and behaviour. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain, sending signals in both directions.
The gut has been called the second brain, and it contains approximately 100 million neurons – more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.
The gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are mostly produced in the brain, however some neurotransmitters, such as GABA and serotonin, are also produced by gut cells and the bacteria within the gut.
We’ve understoood for a long time that eating behaviour is controlled by the gut influencing the brain, with the release of hormones to make us feel hungry or full. However, it’s not the gut itself that influences the brain, but the colony of bacteria within the gut, called the gut flora.
Everyone has a mixture of different strains of bacteria in their guts. Sometimes though, the good can outnumber the bad, which has the potential to cause health problems, including negatively impacting our psychology.
Studies show that in addition to influencing eating behaviour, the gut also influences feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Gut bacteria affect brain health, so changing your gut bacteria may improve your brain health. However, it’s important to remember that not all probiotics are the same.
Certain strains of probiotics have been shown to improve some psychological conditions. Studies have shown that particular probiotics can increase the production of GABA and reduce anxiety and depression. For example, two strains of bacteria Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, have shown to be able to reduce stress symptoms as well as digestive symptoms which have resulted from stress (Messaoudi 2011).
There are some very simple things which can be done to improve the influence of your gut flora.
It’s important to change the gut flora from one which is majority bad bacteria, to one which is majority good. This can be done primarily by changing your diet, but also via probiotics, especially the strains already mentioned above, while supporting your existing good bacteria with prebiotics.
Prebiotics are types of fibre which we can’t digest, but they feed the good bacteria and help them flourish. We also need to look at minimising foods which feed the bad bacteria.
The modern naturopath draws upon specific botanical classes such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, and adaptogens to regulate the psychological system, but to get an even clearer idea of what’s within the gut, we can run a stool sample, which can show us the levels of beneficial bacteria and bad bacteria, and what the bad bacteria is sensitive to, so that we can minimise or eradicate it.
Certain foods may help to increase beneficial bacteria in the gut and improve brain health.
Coconut kefir is a fermented, slightly tangy dairy-free kefir, with a thin yoghurt-like consistency. It contains probiotics plus natural enzymes, vitamins, minerals, protein, and calcium.
Research shows that when you consume dark chocolate good microbes eat it and ferment it, producing an anti-inflammatory affect.
Raw fermented cabbage is rich in vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, and probiotics.
Similar to sauerkraut but originating from Korea, Kimchi is made from fermented cabbage is believed to lower blood pressure, improve immunity, boost metabolism, and protect against cancer.
Lacto-fermented pickles can be made from carrots, radishes, cucumbers, and many more vegetables. Put in a sterile jar with salt and herbs and wait for them to ferment.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Raw apple cider vinegar encourages better digestion, it’s high in minerals, and supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria. (You need to have the cloudy ‘mother’ floating in the bottle).
A fizzy, probiotic tea, which is brewed from bacteria called a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Kombucha has been drunk in China for thousands of years, and is rich in B vitamins, digestive enzymes, and probiotics.
Is a Japanese staple made from fermented soybeans.
Made from fermented soybeans or grains and is rich in nourishing minerals such as potassium. It’s best raw and unpasteurised for full health benefits.
Many fibrous plants contain an insoluble fibre known as inulin, which ferments in the colon and feeds your good gut flora. Therefore, eating some insoluble fibre foods (prebiotics) as well as probiotics can help to build beneficial bacteria in the gut more quickly.
Herbs and supplements
If you’re suffering from low mood or mild anxiety, your naturopath may consider prescribing some additional herbs and nutrients alongside dietary changes.
- St John’s Wort
- S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
- Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA
- B vitamins
Herbal medicines and supplements should always be prescribed by a healthcare professional. Your naturopath will prescribe supplements specific to your symptoms and will check any interactions with medications you may already be taking.
Yvette is a qualified Melbourne-based Naturopath and Nutritionist, MINDD Practitioner, member of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia, and Complementary Medicine Association. Yvette specialises in the treatment of conditions commonly affecting women and children, with a key interest in children’s digestive and neurological conditions, as well as women’s hormonal concerns, digestive issues, fatigue, anxiety, and skin concerns. Yvette consults in South Yarra, Melbourne, as well as Australia-wide via skype/zoom/phone.
The Naturopathic Co. Melbourne Naturopath 2022