Henrietta Norton explains how understanding our gutbrain connection could help reduce depressive episodes
Figures show that antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed in England over 70 million times last year. The list of side-effects from these medicines can range from gut problems, insomnia and painful menstruation to hives, anxiety and impotence. But what if there was another way? In the last few years, nutritional medicine has been exploring the link between mental and physical health and research shows that depression occurs more frequently in those experiencing compromised immune function.
The gut is lined with more than 100 million nerve cells and the largest collection of neural tissue in the body after the brain, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The mucosal tissues found in the gut represent the body’s innate immune system. It is argued by some experts that one reason for the increase in depressive disorders may be a failure to develop a fully functional mucosal immune system, which could sometimes be due to our exposure to antibiotics from an early age.
Our brain and immune system talk to each other constantly using specialised ‘cellmessengers’ called cytokines which come in two varieties: pro-inflammatory and antiinflammatory. Anti-inflammatory cytokines are produced in the gut and colon and therefore if gut health is compromised, so too may be the immune system and the ability to regulate these two varieties of cytokines.
Researchers have identified that consistently raised levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body will cause a lack of energy, sleep disturbances, changes in mood and loss of interest. If we cannot produce antiinflammatory cytokines to restore the balance, some people may develop depressive episodes.
So how can you help your nervous system? The B vitamins are essential for energy production and the normal functioning of the nervous system, and vitamin B5 in particular is needed for the production of the glucocorticoid hormones in the adrenals, such as cortisol. Good sources include whole grains, eggs, beans and lentils, a wide range of vegetables, fish and meats (choose good quality or organic). Taking a B vitamin complex, such as the Wild Nutrition B Complex Plus, can also be very supportive and the herb ashwagandha has been shown to support healthy cortisol regulation.
Magnesium is quickly used up when we are stressed, but it is essential for energy and the production of neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. The best way to top up your levels is to eat nuts and seeds, buckwheat groats or flour, greens such as spinach and kale, or fish and seafood. If sleep is an issue then taking a supplement at night can be a great support.
Following a bespoke nutritional programme, that includes an antiinflammatory and gut-supporting dietary protocol, can have significant clinical benefit. Improving gut immunity with specific bacteria can help promote antiinflammatory cytokines and essential fatty acids are also required to help these ‘friendly’ bacteria stick to the gut wall, reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines and improve brain function.
Eggs are rich in zinc and tryptophan to boost serotonin levels. Use steamed asparagus to dip into boiled eggs as a morning mood booster.
Avocados are rich in healthy omega 3 fatty acids which have an array of benefits for our bodies. The acids DHA and EPA may help to improve brain function, regulate vision and contribute to normal heart function. Not only this, but they are also used as ‘taxis’ to ferry hormones around the body, including the libido-charging testosterone in men and women. For an extra boost of healthy fats, slice chunks of avocado into your salad or onto your morning toast, drizzle over virgin olive oil and add flakes of wild salmon.
Wild salmon is full of healthy fatty acids to support your hormones and libido. Mix with horseradish and plain yoghurt to make a salmon paté for a quick mood supporting snack.
Quinoa is full of protein, minerals such as magnesium, and B vitamins needed to produce anti-anxiety brain chemicals including GABA. Use as an alternative to rice or wheat pasta to help manage anxiety.
Lean proteins including fish, chicken and lamb provide a complete mix of amino acids required for the building blocks of neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine.
Henrietta Norton is a nutritional therapist, author and co-founder of Wild Nutrition (wildnutrition.com). She has clinics at Grace Belgravia and SP & Co in London.
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