Your food choices have a direct impact on your digestion, weight, immunity, and many aspects of your short and long-term physical health. In fact, the food you eat has a powerful impact on your mind, too. According to the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, ‘nutrition may be as important to mental health as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology’. It is an exciting field of health and it revolves around your gut ‘microbiome’. This describes the trillions of microbes that live in your gut and the genetic material inside them. These bugs interact with the body, with the food you eat and with each other. They send messages to the brain through the gut–brain axis. Indeed, the messages that come from your microbiome can strongly influence your mental wellbeing. If it’s healthy and happy, you are, too.
How do we help them to flourish? It’s pretty simple, really – we eat the foods our bugs like to feed on, and avoid those that wipe them out. The more abundant and diverse your gut bacteria, the healthier you’ll be and the more psychologically resilient.
Here’s a quick guide to feeding your microbiome:
- Quit highly processed food. This includes ready meals, takeaways, crisps, biscuits, sweets, some cereals, refined breads, and anything with a long list of ingredients. Whilst these foods are convenient, they can have a disastrous effect on the microbiome. Some additives, emulsifiers (chemicals added to highly processed foods to keep the texture consistent), pesticides and artificial sweeteners can decimate gut bugs, as well. The same goes for too much alcohol and sugary drinks.
- Try new foods, cook new recipes, find new tastes and textures. Stop eating the same old foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Next time you go out for a meal, try and order something you have never tried before. Eat the alphabet over the course of a month. Gut bugs feed on plant fibre, so by increasing the variety of vegetables, fruit and fibre-rich foods such as beans and legumes you eat, you’ll be increasing the diversity of bugs whilst keeping them well nourished. In 2017, a randomised controlled test known as the SMILEs trial put patients with moderate or severe depression, who were already undergoing treatment, on a whole-food Mediterranean diet. It was full of a wide variety of diverse and minimally processed foods that were rich in immune-supportive, an!-inflammatory oily fish, olive oil, colourful fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Twelve weeks later, these pa!ents had a much greater reduction in depressive symptoms than the control group who did not change their diet but were instead given social support.
- Include fermented foods and drinks such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, natural yoghurt, kefir and kombucha. These are naturally probiotic foods that introduce beneficial bacteria into your body.
- Eat all your day’s food within a 12-hour window (so if you finish dinner at 7pm, don’t have your breakfast until 7am). Gut microbes thrive when they get a break from food. In the meantime, a new set of bugs comes in and cleans up the gut wall. Limit snacks between meals and don’t worry about skipping a meal now and again.