Food for Thought: Nutritional Psychiatry
It’s not all that difficult to connect our emotional state to the foods we eat. Simply perusing through online recipes, you’re bound to find ‘comfort food’ meals. When you’re feeling blue, you might be one of many that reach for chocolate. There is a reason this is the case: the foods we eat are directly related to the chemical messengers in our brain that control our mood. But this relationship travels both ways.
The road to our gut-brain axis, the bidirectional relationship that connects our brain with, well, our ‘second’ brain - the gut - travels through the enteric nervous system. When these signals get crossed or traffic slows down, it can result in many symptoms that take the form of mental health conditions. And though this may seem like a lot of information to swallow, it has stimulated an entirely new field of psychology called nutritional psychiatry1.
Though it may seem like a strange idea, a ton of science linked to the Gut-Brain Axis has shown significant promise in mental health therapy. In this budding field, mental health professionals combine nutrition education with more traditional psychiatric counseling to help individuals benefit from more stable moods and patterns.
And it’s helping countless numbers of people overcome many of their emotional and mental challenges.
Chocolate aside, there are many other foods that can increase your serotonin, relax your stress levels, and help you feel satiated, safe, and secure. Though many of these foods may be as much a product of ‘nurturing’ through our learned experiences and upbringing (here’s looking at you, Nana’s chicken noodle soup), science has a little bit to say as well.
The source of all our body’s chemical messengers is dependent on how well the body is functioning. Though fully capable of creating most of these from our own biology, how well and how quickly we can produce them depends heavily on the state of our body, our gut, and our diet.
The introduction of healthy foods fit for our gut microbiome supports the necessary balance we need to thrive. And it does this in a number of ways that can work in conjunction with traditional psychiatry to help manage symptoms of various mental health challenges.
Serotonin is easily the most well known neurotransmitter on this list that inherently controls our mood, and helps us with feelings of happiness and wellbeing. But this brain hormone relies heavily on a healthy gut with almost 95% of it produced from our gut bacteria2. It’s easy to imagine then how many people with mood disorders also note disruptions to their digestion and experience symptoms of abdominal cramping and GI upset.
Used to help us plan, remember, and strategize, dopamine is also the neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure. Many individuals who have disrupted dopamine production in their brain fail to experience pleasure from the things they love and suffer from a spotty memory. Surprisingly, scientists have found that about 50% dopamine is produced in the digestive tract by neurons that link the gut and the brain (via the enteric nervous system) and directly from our intestinal cells3. In conditions like leaky gut that can be caused from imbalance in our gut microbiome, the health of our intestinal cells can be at risk and interrupt how much dopamine is produced. Keeping these junctions tight and promoting the health of the intestinal lining can help to maintain the stability of dopamine production.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short, is an important inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood by having anti-anxiety and anti-seizure characteristics. Disruption to GABA production has been associated with a number of mental health illnesses, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. Like other neurotransmitters, GABA can be produced by a number of gut bacteria that can convert fermented foods (like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir) into GABA that can travel to the brain.
You may be familiar with the powerful response that norepinephrine can produce in your body. This neurotransmitter functions alongside adrenaline, a stress hormone, that helps the mind focus in fight or flight scenarios. Low levels of norepinephrine have been shown to play a role in disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression4. However, heightened and lingering levels of norepinephrine can promote anxiety attacks and the inability to stop your thoughts from focusing or spiraling. Like many mood disorders, norepinephrine production is regulated by various gut bacteria - and among our gut microbiome are various pathogens who can exploit this neurotransmitter for their benefit. In fact, because of the close relationship between norepinephrine and the gut (think that gut-wrenching feeling when you can’t find your wallet), dysbiosis in the gut ecosystem can cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms.
Many psychiatrists and researchers have noted that many individuals who suffer from mental health conditions also experience strange disruptions to their sleep patterns. Restlessness at night and insomnia are very common co-symptoms that manifest with depression and anxiety disorders. Now scientists believe that melatonin, the ‘sleep’ neurotransmitter, may also be closely linked to imbalances within our gut microbiome. The production of melatonin relies heavily on our body’s relationship to our natural circadian rhythm - or the physiological response of our body to the rising and setting of the sun. A number of studies have found that our gut microbiome may play a stronger role than we previously thought in how well our circadian rhythm functions, potentially disrupting the release of melatonin in preparation for sleep5.
As scientists have begun to learn more about the complex role our gut microbiome plays with our brain through the Gut-Brain Axis, some researchers are referring to this relationship as the ‘Psychobiome.’ Whether our gut microbes are directly producing key neurotransmitters or affecting their ability to interact and travel to the brain, it’s easy to see how targeted nutritional psychiatry may help individuals with mental health relief.
By accessing our body’s natural ability to grow, function, and heal from the foods we consume, we’re learning how we can unlock hidden new therapies for a variety of mental disorders.
Whole Body Health Starts in the Mind
Though this field of psychology is still fairly new, many psychiatrists are noting the impact of providing supplementary nutritional advice with their counseling practices. As Viome believes, our food can be our medicine. But by taking control of our health today, there may even be ways to use nutrition as it was meant to be used: to help us heal from the inside out and prevent the onset of chronic disease. But to do that, we must first learn about the complex relationship between our food and our gut microbiome and identify the unique differences that separate each individual.
There is no such thing as a universal diet, just as there is no such thing as a universal clinical intervention to help the many people who suffer from mental health disorders. But what was once a guessing game of trial and error has a new hope in store: the restorative power behind innovative new therapeutics, supportive counseling, and precision nutrition.
The information on the Viome website is provided for informational purposes only and with the understanding that Viome is not engaged in rendering medical advice or recommendations. Viome provides this educational information to share the exciting developments being reported in the scientific literature about the human microbiome and your health. Viome products are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.