Even before the global pandemic that is putting such a strain on everyone's mental health, depression and anxiety were the most common mental health conditions worldwide and that's not even counting those people who suffer from low moods and anxiety, but who don't consult a doctor about it.
Food and drink today, particularly of the ultra-processed variety, has been positioned as a reward by the food industry and this has led to people turning to what they perceive as 'comfort foods' when they are feeling down, or are stressed. The trouble is, with modern society the way it is, humans now spend more time feeling down and stressed than ever before. COVID-19 is simply magnifying this already existing sense of malaise.
Over the past decade, the research community has taken more interest in the link between what we eat and how we feel. The comfort foods that people tend to turn to are high in carbohydrate and sugars which have an immediate effect on our blood sugar levels, sending them soaring. The trouble is, what goes up, must come down and the subsequent significant drop in blood sugar levels, result in another mood and energy crash, which leads to another attempt to raise levels by eating more carbohydrate/sugar rich foods. The mood rollercoaster.
Did you know that diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar are also inflammatory? Long term or chronic inflammation has been found to link back to a higher risk of depression and this might link to potential damage to our microbiome..
Our microbiome - or bacteria population in our large intestine - has a direct liaison with our brain and vice versa. If our microbiome is out of sorts and less varied, then this has been shown to also impact on mood and depression risk. Gut permeability or 'leaky gut' which is basically a gut lining that is allowing particles through into the blood stream that should have remained in the intestine and evacuated, is also linked to depression, probably via the decreased availability of Serotonin.
Serotonin acts as a neutrotransmitter, basically a messenger that relays message from one part of the body to the other. Serotonin acts in the brain, but also on the cardiovascular (heart), muscular and endocrine (hormones) systems. Serotonin has become well-known through its inclusion in anti-depressant medications that are based on Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, despite the fact that scientists still don't know what role serotonin actually has within the brain and why lower levels of serotonin lead to depression. The only thing we do know, that in certain people using SSRIs to increase the amount of serotonin within the brain does have an effect on mood.
One thing is known, however, only 10% of serotonin is found in the brain. The remaining 90% is found in the gut. To have good functioning serotonin levels, therefore, it is key to ensure that your gut health is tip top.
Next week: Nutrition Tips to Support Gut Health and Mental Well-being.