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Food for the Brain

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Research over recent years has shown that our gut bacteria is fundamentally linked to our health and well-being.  Another area where gut bacteria is being investigated is in the functioning of the brain.  This new field is referred to as psychobiotics and it is helping scientists understand the way that gut bacteria communicates with our brain.

Scientists have discovered a number of ways that bacteria and brain communicate.  The first is via the vagus nerve which the nerve that connects most of the organs in our body.  The vagus nerve sends messages from the brain to the gut but far more messages from the gut to the brain. The second way is production of short chain fatty acids that are produced by the gut bacteria.  These fatty acids are absorbed into the blood stream and travel to the brain. It is still unclear how this affects the brain.  The third way is the production of tryptophan by the gut bacteria, which is a precursor for the production of the hormone serotonin, otherwise known as the happy hormone, because it helps maintains mood and sleep.  Tryptophan is normally found in carbohydrates and turkey!!  The more tryptophan we have the more serotonin we produce and the calmer we feel.

What scientists have also discovered is that people who suffer from anxiety and depression have less diversity of gut bacteria.  Better health is link to greater diversity of bacteria in the gut.  There are two main types of beneficial bacteria in the gut.  These are lactobacillus (L.) and bifobacterium (B.).  Lower levels of lactobacillus are correlated with poor sleep which is often a symptom of depression.  Lower levels of bifobacterium are associated with high levels of the cortisol hormone.  This hormone is a marker used to determine stress levels withing the body.

How then, can we increase the numbers of our beneficial bacteria and improve brain function? 

First and foremost we need to assess our diet.  A diet high in sugary foods and drinks, processed foods and refined grains such as white rice, pasta and bread has a detrimental affect on the both mood and gut bacteria.  Reducing these foods to the occasional treat may help both mood and bacteria.  Replacing white bread, pasta and rice with wholegrain equivalents may help.

A Mediterranean-style diet has overwhelming evidence that it effective against depression.  This type of diet is based on a large variety of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices.  Half filling your plate with vegetables is the way to do it.  It is then best to supplement your diet with reasonable amounts of protein like eggs, fish and chicken, and a small amount of red meat.  For vegetarians and vegan it is important to ensure protein from mushrooms, tofu, beans, legumes, lentils and nuts are sufficient in the diet.  Each meal should contain some protein and protein snacks with nuts, seeds, hummus and eggs are better than cakes, biscuits, chocolate and crisps.

The Mediterranean diet will contain good amounts of fibre due to the contents of fruit and vegetables, but it may be advisable to add small amounts of high fibre grains found in wholegrain foods like brown rice, wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bread.  Other whole grains such as quinoa, oats, buckwheat, rye and spelt may be great alternatives to the usual wheat ones.  Do be aware that rye, spelt and wheat contain gluten and should be avoided by those with gluten allergies.

Omega-3 rich foods are essential for good brain development and to help with the integrity of the gut lining.  Eating nuts, seeds, oily fish, soybeans and brain-shaped walnuts are all great foods that will help brain function.  And don’t forget the great benefits of extra virgin olive oil and avocado for brain health.

Another great food group that is beginning to become trendy but essential to our diet is fermented food. This includes natural yoghurts, dairy and water kefir, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, fermented tofu and good quality sourdough bread.  They contain both probiotic foods which are foods containing beneficial bacteria and prebiotic foods which are the foods beneficial bacteria feed and thrive on.

What about probiotic supplements you may ask!!  My response is diet first.  Probiotics will be far more effective if you work on your diet first.  However, that’s not to say they won’t be helpful and it’s worth investing in some good probiotics if you are making changes to your diet.  Research has shown that different bacteria has different effects on anxiety and depression.  If you are more prone to anxiety look for probiotics such as, B.breve, B.longum, L.heleveticus, and L.plantarum.  If depression is the issue you may want to look for B.breve, B.longum, B.bifidum, L.acidophilus, L.alivarius, L.brevis, L.casei, L.delbrlueckii, L.helveticus, L.lactis, L.plantarum, L.rhamnous, and S.thermophilus.

Shop bought probiotics that have shown to be effective include:

VSL#3 it contains L.acidophilus, L.casei, L.helveticus, B.longum, and B.breve.  In research it has shown to be effective in treating people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease associated depression. 

To buy see here.

BIMUNO IBAID contains Bifobacterium and fibre that had shown to increase the levels of bifobacteria with 7 days of use.

To buy see here.

Zenflore containing B.Longum 1714 which in placebo-controlled trial showed a decrease in the cortisol levels in those taking B.Longum group.  It also recorded that people in this group had reduced levels of stress.

To buy see here.


Please note: If you have a medical condition or are taking medication you should consult your GP or pharmacist before taking any supplements, or making changes in your diet.

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