Last year, when the world went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and life as we knew it changed, I found myself on a downward spiral with my nutrition. Late-night snacking, sugar binges and increased alcohol intake—the usual coping mechanisms for temporary relief from the fear and panic over the uncertainty that loomed—gradually caught on, showing not just on the weighing scale, but impacting my overall health as well.
Physically, I was bloated and low on energy. Mentally, the depression and anxiety I’d been battling worsened. A few months in (and with the lockdown in Mumbai never-ending), I decided to get my act together, starting with eliminating refined sugar and included more fruits and vegetables in my diet.
Within a week of making better food choices, I could feel the brain fog lift and my energy levels shoot up. I’d read about sugar leading to inflammation and creating havoc in the body, but as someone with a sweet tooth, I’d conveniently let that information slide, blaming my hormones instead for the mood disorders. Of course, I was wrong.
“I cannot stress enough that we are what we eat, in that the food we consume impacts our mental health and well-being. Pay attention to your body intelligence. What your body tells you when you eat something is vital information you can use to improve your mental and physical health,” says Uma Naidoo, MD, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist and author of This Is Your Brain On Food.
With India experiencing one of the worst waves of COVID-19 and mental health once again being tested, I decided to reach out to Dr Naidoo and get a complete low-down on the gut-brain axis. While your diet isn’t a solution for the current global crisis, what you feed your gut could certainly help you manage your mental health better and keep your immunity in check—both most needed to get through the pandemic. Dr Naidoo breaks it down for us.
What is the gut microbiome and how does it impact our health?
The gut microbiota is a very large community of microorganisms that lives inside us in balance to support our overall health, including our digestive health, immunity, hormone balance, circadian rhythm and mental health. Technically, when we speak about the genetic code of this community of microbiota, we call this the microbiome. At least 39 trillion microbial cells live in our gut. For them to function and for us to thrive, they need to be fed fibre-rich foods. When we make poor food choices, we feed the bad microbes in our gut. An imbalance, as a result, can lead to conditions such as inflammation and leaky gut.
Tell us more about how the gut microbiome affects mental health?
The gut and the brain are connected because in the developing human embryo these two organs arise from the same cells. While they grow apart to be in two different parts of the body, they remain connected throughout our lives by the vagus nerve, which is our tenth cranial nerve. The vagus nerve is called the wandering nerve and it acts like a two-way superhighway connecting these two organs and allowing for bi-directional 24×7 communication 365 days a year—the communication is in the form of chemical messages. The food we eat gets digested and healthy foods lead to helpful breakdown products being formed called short-chain fatty acids. But when we eat unhealthy foods, bad breakdown products get formed. Unhealthy food feeds unhealthy microbes and those microbes create compounds that cause inflammation in our body. Inflammation in the gut leads to inflammation in the brain over time, and inflammation is now a significant and major underlying cause of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, cognitive problems and more.
What are the red flags one should watch out for that indicate one’s gut is not in a good shape?
A person may start to experience gastrointestinal discomfort (gas, bloating, diarrhoea) or other conditions such as depressed mood, increased anxiety, poor sleep, brain fog, skin rashes, acne, joint pains to name just a few.
How can one improve the gut microbiome?
The gut microbiome is essentially the mission control in our body, coordinating many different bodily functions through the health and integrity of our gut microbes. We, therefore, need to nurture these microbes with foods like vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds that feed them with fibre that help them thrive. We also need to avoid junk food, processed foods, ultra-processed foods and food with added sugars. Stress, poor sleep, medication, smoking, alcohol, street drugs as well as exercise impact the gut microbiome as well.