Stress can be seriously damaging to our physical and mental health. Exercise, meditate and yoga can help alleviate the symptoms. That’s if you do them! Now, scientists may have found another method … eating.
What lurks within
I wrote previously about how important the microbiome is to our mental health. Our bodies are hosts to trillions of alien cells in the form of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Collectively they are referred to as the microbiome. And a healthy microbiome is very important.
Each of us has a unique make-up of bugs in our gut. Families have similar but not identical microbiomes. If our gut buddies are working well they help protect us against a wide range of ailments. Obesity, diabetes, auto-immune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, Autism, anxiety, depression have all been linked. Now that is one sobering list.
It’s All About The Gut, Not Worries?
What would help is Grit. That elusive ability to shrug off upsets and to soldier on. I see many articles on how to develop grit and how to instill it in our children. It’s a state of mind that we can train, right?
New research suggests that our bacterial buddies have a part to play here too.
Researchers in University College Cork looked at the role food plays in a stressed microbiome. Our beneficial bacteria generally like to feed on certain food stuffs. These are called prebiotics. Not surprisingly, they are found in many of the foods that we know to be good for us. Think fruit, vegetables and high fibre foods. More prebiotics in your diet means more good bacteria. Probiotics on the other hand, are foods or supplements filled with live good bacteria.
The researchers looked at two types of prebiotics in particular, Fos and Gos.
Fos stands for fructo-oligosaccharide. It’s found in leeks, onions, artichokes, garlic, asparagus, wheat, barley and bananas. It is also used as an artificial sweetener.
Gos stands for galacto-oligosaccharide. Food sources include chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, breast milk and seaweed.
In the study, chronically stressed mice were fed varying mixtures of Fos and/or Gos. Some ate only one or the other. Some were fed a combination of both.
The prebiotics triggered gene expression in specific parts of the mice brains. Also, levels of stress hormones in the mice dropped.The mice had less anxiety and displayed fewer stress-related behaviour. The combination of both Fos & Gos yielded the best stress-busting results.
So, prebiotics regulate anxiety and stress. At least in mice.
If such robust findings could be translated to humans we may have a whole new ‘psychobiotic’ way of managing stress-related disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders,” Professor John Cryan, APC Microbiome Institute, University College Cork.
Stress Bad Sleep Good
Another study by researchers in the University of Colorado adds weight to these claims. They fed one set of rats a diet rich in prebiotics. The second set of control rats were given a normal diet. Both groups experienced stressful conditions in a controlled test. “Acute stress can disrupt the gut microbiome,” according to Dr. Agnieszka Mika, one of the researchers.
The control group of rats suffered from microbiome disruption. Their sleep patterns were also disturbed for some time after. The prebiotic rats did not experience a disruption in the level of good bacteria levels. Also, their sleep patterns recovered a lot quicker.
The stressor the rats received was the equivalent of a single intense acute stressful episode for humans, such as a car accident or the death of a loved one,” Dr. Robert S. Thompson, University of Colorado, Boulder
So prebiotics can make the microbiome more resilient to stressful events. At least in rats.
Psychobiotics is the buzz word that encompasses these tests. There is a connection between our brains and our digestive system. It’s known as the brain-gut axis. We’re discovering that this link is very important for our mental health. Psychobiotics hopes to treat mental health issues by treating our microbiome rather than our actual brain.
Even though these studies were on mice and rats, both set of researchers believe the results hold true for humans. Both Universities plan on human trials in the near future.
The best thing about psychobiotics is that you can treat yourself. A diet rich in prebiotics may counteract chronic stress. It may also protect us from future stressful events. It’s unlikely to be the sole cause of mental illnesses but every little helps, right?
Prebiotics are widely available as supplements and are generally considered safe. However, the best source is probably from the foods themselves. Eat a wide range of foods with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. Whichever way you look at it, gorging on a wide range of vegetables and fresh fruits is a healthy diet, so you have nothing to lose. As always, check with your doctor before making a change to your diet or taking supplements.
Remember, it’s not just you you have to worry about. You’re eating for trillions.