Food is powerful. We eat when we’re hungry, sad or celebrating, and everything in between. Food can hold meaningful memories, embody cultural significance and forge a sense of togetherness. We’ve all experienced the joy that food can bring us in the moment, but can food have a lasting impact on our mood? Research on the gut-brain axis suggests food could be a factor in our mental health.
What is the gut-brain axis?
It may come as a surprise that your brain and your gut are tightly connected. The gut-brain axis is the two-way communication between the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and your enteric nervous system (neurons and the cells that support them that are located in the gastrointestinal tract). This system is what helps you digest food, but it also may cause changes in mood. This is due in part to the gut microbiome — the ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut. The gut microbiome is not only involved in digestion; these bacteria can remarkably generate, absorb and modulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. The importance of these neurotransmitters and the communication between the brain and the gut is exemplified by doctors prescribing antidepressants, medications that alter neurotransmission, in an effort to improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Additionally, it’s known that mental health issues correlate with gastrointestinal issues. The communication between the gut and stomach is bidirectional, with the brain impacting your gut and vice versa.
Research at The Johns Hopkins University
Researchers and clinicians alike at The Johns Hopkins University are delving into this exciting field of work. The Amos Food, Body and Mind Center, led by Pankaj “Jay” Pasricha and Glenn Treisman, combines the fields of gastroenterology and psychiatry with the goal of treating patients in a way that will improve their symptoms together, rather than treating the issues separately. Additionally, the clinic will perform research that explores the link between elements of the microbiome and changes in the nervous system.
At the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Calliope Holingue studies the connection between microbes and autism spectrum disorders, and how the gut-brain axis may be involved. Part of her focus is searching for links between the gut microbiome and the cognitive symptoms of autism spectrum disorders, and whether diet could be an effective tool for treatment.
Liisa Hantsoo is approaching the problem from a different angle. She is asking how trauma during development can impact the gut microbiome, and whether this impact on the gut plays a role in the increased likelihood of mental health issues in individuals who experience trauma.
What does this mean for our diet?
Many of us, armed with the knowledge that our diet may impact our mental and physical well-being, want to act in our best interests. Diet fads and misleading news have made it hard to determine the best path. We’ve all heard that probiotics may improve our gut health, but some data suggests otherwise; however, some studies have found that probiotics could improve cognition and mood. Other work has suggested that a Mediterranean diet may be beneficial in alleviating depression. The Mediterranean diet has been touted for its physical health benefits as well. Ultimately, there is no one diet that is recommended by psychiatrists because the data is inconclusive, and it is always recommended to talk with your health care team about the best path for you.
It's important to remember that our mental health is multifaceted. While this new field of research has shown evidence that food impacts your mood and mental health, it’s not the end-all, be-all for your mental wellness. Additionally, it can’t be discounted how drastically a sweet treat or meal with friends can improve our mood. As in all parts of life, there is a balance.
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