Let us go back two and a half million years, to the days that our Paleolithic forefathers walked the earth. These cave dwellers may have been unfashionably hairy and lived far less lavishly than we do today, but arguably their diet is one thing that we can all draw some positive influences from.
As hunter gatherers, our prehistoric ancestors led active lifestyles. Foraging the locality for vegetation and searching for wild animals to provide them with meat and clothing. Food was unprocessed, pesticides did not exist, and meat would have been free from artificial hormones and antibiotics. Furthermore, our Paleolithic descendants consumed fermented foods (honey and berries for example), which even today, has many benefits in terms of both our physical and mental health. In fact, as long ago as 7000 BC, intentional fermenting of food to produce wine and other beverages took place, proving that our association to the intentional fermenting of food dates way back into the depths of our collective history.
Zoom forward to modern times and science has been able to enrich our understanding of how microbial fermentation can beneficially affect our mental health. The Flemish Gut Flora Project; led by scientist Jeroen Raes; has established strong correlations between a lack of “good” gut bacteria and both depression and anxiety. There is a bidirectional association between gut bacteria and the brain with reciprocity in function, meaning that poor mental health almost certainly negatively effects the number of good bacteria in the gut and vice versa. However, fermenting food, increases the foods nutritional and functional richness and thus its probiotic and prebiotic quota.
How do Probiotics in fermented foods effect mood disorders?
Well, the effect of probiotics are multifaceted. The science is convoluted and a little blah, blah, blah-some so I will try to simplify it as much as I can. It has long been believed that the gut communicates with the brain through the central nervous system. This Gut-Brain Axis allows a bi-directional chitchat to happen (Brain: “how are you?” Gut: “very well thank you, and you? Brain: “dandy thanks for asking!”). This axis also uses other messengers such as GABA to assist communication. Good microbial bacteria enhances this interaction. Where there is a deficiency in healthy gut bacteria it somewhat short circuits this system and causes problematic communication between the gut and the brain, leading to mental and physical ill health.
Our gastro-intestinal lining has limited permeability to allow nutrients to pass through it but functions as a barrier to larger molecules and toxins. During gastrointestinal transit, this lining can become damaged by food chemicals or “bad” bacteria. Subsequently, this can allow toxins to migrate through the wall lining and into our bloodstream raising our inflammatory responses. Inflammation of this manner can lead to many health issues such as arthritis and food allergies, but equally important inflammation has proven association to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. When we eat microbial enriched fermented food, the permeability of the intestine is reduced, and mental health significantly improves. Furthermore, probiotics increase GABA, antioxidants and vital vitamins/minerals that help stabilise and regulate mood.
I hope you are still awake!?
How quickly can we feel the benefits?
In as little as three weeks, mood and cognitive function can be vastly improved. This benefits the emotional regulation of anger, depression and anxiety as well as cognitive functions including memory.
What food can we eat to increase our good bacteria?
Yoghurt – traditional unsweetened yoghurt contains copious amounts of live bacteria. However, much of what we buy in todays supermarkets is pasteurised and therefore has had these bacteria eliminated. Try to look for yoghurt which contains active cultures.
Soybeans – a vegan alternative to tofu is tempeh. This is made from fermented soybeans and can be created from the comfort of your own kitchen.
Kombucha – made from fermenting tea. It is an acquired taste but holds many health benefits.
Sauerkraut – made from fermented cabbage, this is a simple dish to make at home and has an amazing zingy flavour.
Pickles – onions, gherkins, cabbage, cauliflower, beets and turnips, even apples, plums and blueberries…the list is endless!
Miso – a paste made from barley, rice or soybeans, typically used in Japanese cooking, this paste is high in protein and packs a punch!
Kimchi – made by fermenting seasoned vegetables, this Korean staple is full of flavour and easy to make.
Kefir – is a little like drinkable yoghurt – great for smoothie making!
Wine – now don’t get to excited…everything in moderation! However red wine has been recommended for its properties both in combating physical and mental ill health.
Whilst a lot more research is needed with regards to “food therapy”, it would seem that our ancient ancestors were definitely on to something. The medicinal properties of food both fermented and in the form of herbs has long been noted in the treatment of physical and mental ailments. Give it a try! Get in the kitchen, get creative and see if it works for you…what have you got to lose!?