Cathy has been experiencing debilitating anxiety for years. She has a constant feeling of dread that never goes away. She obsessively worries about all of the negative possibilities that each day holds for her, causing her heart to race, sweaty palms and dry mouth. There are days that the anxiety is so crippling, Cathy says she can't leave the house to go to work.
Cathy, a patient of mine, also eats the standard Australia diet (a.k.a. SAD) which consists of cereal for breakfast with milk, a muffin and coffee mid morning, a chicken schnitzel focaccia for lunch, chocolate in the afternoon to give her an energy lift and dinner is often pasta or meat and vegetables. She often eats ice cream or has more chocolate after dinner for a little sweet treat.
What if I were to tell you that Cathy’s diet was causing her long standing anxiety? Too long a bow to draw?
Research in the area of Nutritional Psychiatry is now identifying the significant impacting that your diet has on your mood, and it all starts in your tummy with your gut microbes. What we are learning is that having happy, anti-inflammatory, and balanced bowel bacteria equates to a happy, balanced mood.
Timothy Dynan and John Cryan are groundbreaking researchers doing the brilliant work that is uncovering how bacteria can create the neurotransmitters that make us feel happy, calm and relaxed.
They have identified a new mental disorder treatment option, called psychobiotics. Psychobiotics are microbes (probiotics and potentially beneficial yeasts) and fibres that when ingested can improve your mood.
They have discovered strains of bacteria that improve your mental state. There are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species that can produce GABA, the calming neurotransmitter that stops us feeling anxious. There are also certain strains of Streptococcus, Escherichia coli and Enterococcus that produce serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline that can be produced by the Bacillus strain bacteria.
You can even have certain strains of bacteria in your gut that prevent you developing a mental disorder in the first place. That is, your gut bugs are practicing preventative medicine. For example, Faecalibacterium is a good bacteria that has been found to be reduce your risk of developing depression.
Given what we have learned about diet, it's likely that Cathy’s anxiety was being heavily influenced by what she ate. Diets high in bad fats and sugar are inflammatory. They are also low in fibre and the antioxidants which feed the bugs in your bowel. The packet foods, hamburgers and ice creams taste good (we all know that) but they also cause a rise in gut bacteria that create inflammation and toxins that work their way around your whole body, including your brain.
When your body is in a low grade inflammatory state all of the time, your immune system behaves like you are constantly sick, making you feel less than 100 per cent. Another fascinating study that looked at what happened after eating a processed food meal found that the endotoxins released were still affecting mood six hours after eating it!
Armed with this knowledge, Cathy has now taken taking the first steps toward improving her anxiety. She has committed to eating a high fibre, mostly plant food diet: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains.
She has also explored what her microbiome looks like with some testing. With this knowledge, we have been able to create an individualised treatment plan to balance her gut bacteria using psychobiotics and specific bacteria feeding foods in her daily diet. And she will never need to fill another script for Zanax.