Thalia Pellegrini is a BANT-registered nutritional therapist, also known as the Knackered Mums Nutritionist. This article is for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. You can read our full disclaimer here. As Thalia states in her piece, mental health challenges require a multi-disciplinary approach. If you are struggling with your mental health, please reach out to your GP. If you are feeling in crisis, please refer to our Urgent Warning. If you have any allergies or are pregnant, please bear that in mind when reading this piece, particularly before eating any of the ingredients that are mentioned. You can see the NHS advice on what’s safe to eat in pregnancy here.
A mum struggling with depression or anxiety could be easily forgiven for not paying attention to the state of her gut. And yet the gut-brain connection can be a powerful focus for anyone in the grip of mental health challenges. “Butterflies in your tummy” or “I’m too nervous to eat,” are part of our vernacular, a subconscious acknowledgment that our emotions can affect our appetite or even our digestion. We also know that communication between the gut and the brain is a two-way street. As a nutritional therapist, when a mum suffering from depression or anxiety walks through my door, her gut health will likely be key to our work together.
Our Second Brain
Often referred to as the “second brain,” our gut is the only organ to have its own independent nervous system, consisting of an intricate network of 100 million neurons embedded in the gut wall. The gut microbiome is an ecosystem of “good” and “bad” bacteria. A balance between the two is preferable, because when “bad” bacteria dominate, problems with our health can begin to show. And that includes with our mental health.
What we eat matters. A diet rich in a diverse number of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and legumes can help support a healthy gut microbiome and this in turn can positively impact mood and depressive symptoms.
Multiples studies have explored the impact of dietary change on mental health outcomes. One 2017 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience concluded that “intake of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts, legumes and greater diversity of vegetables,” was associated with improved mental health over a period of three months in a group of adults with self-reported depression. It also noted that reducing unhealthy snacks was also correlated with better mental health. Research published last year in the Nutrition Journal explored the relationship between diet and depressive symptoms. It concluded that, “adherence to a healthy diet was associated with reduced risk of development of depressive symptoms”.
The mums that come to see me often struggle with fatigue and low mood. This may be due a number of reasons but, in my experience, dietary changes often help, surprisingly fast. Adding in foods like dark green vegetables, bone broths and some good quality protein, all of which support energy and nourish the gut, can make a huge difference to low mood and anxiety in just a week or two. Nicola is a mum of one who was not eating well when I met her: “I noticed that little pockets of anxiety that might flare up during the day were actually hunger signals. It is an empowering moment when you realise that food is so integral to nerves.”
Are your microbes telling you something?
One emerging field of research called “psychobiotics” explores how microbes – the microorganisms in your gut – might directly affect your mood. So it stands to reason that the more of the good guys, the better. Take serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter known to influence our mood. Around 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. It is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. Neurotransmitters protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation; they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food; and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain. So, supporting our body’s production of serotonin, for example through our dietary choices, can also be helping to support our mental health.
Your bacteria may even be sending “requests” to your brain. There are many families or species of bacteria in the gut. There are some types of Lactobacillus for example, a common species of bacteria, that can manipulate the opioid receptors in the brain to produce something like a shot of morphine. What feeds your lactobacillus species? Well, some really like sugar. So, next time you are craving something sweet, it could be a message from your microbiome. On the flip side, another major species, Bifidobacterium, loves to munch on fibre. When you eat fibre, Bifidobacterium produces something called butyrate. Butyrate can make its way to the brain and can improve mood. So, you might crave fibre because you’ve learned a Pavlovian response to that feel-good feeling. Get your fibre from other foods, too. Consider adding in wholegrains like oats, brown rice, and pulses.
How to feed your friendly bacteria
One simple way to encourage the proliferation of good bacteria in the gut is to eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables (add in fresh and dried herbs too). The greater the diversity of colour and type the better, so eat the rainbow.
Vegetables are also a source of prebiotics. That’s the stuff your good bacteria like to consume to encourage the production of even more friendly microbes. Try to include some of these in your diet: leeks, onions, garlic, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Then there’s probiotics. These contain strains of good bacteria to support a healthy gut microbiome. Try adding shop-bought fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or kefir to your diet instead. Start with small amounts and build up.
What we eat matters
While mental health challenges require a multi-disciplinary approach, diet can and should be part of that. For mums who may just find their mood a little lower than they’d like, upping your daily fibre, food shopping with colour in mind and incorporating some probiotic foods into your diet are all simple ways to give your gut the fuel it needs to support good brain health, too. For mums struggling more long-term, it may be worth considering consulting a BANT-registered nutritional therapist.
What should you eat to keep your gut happy?
Set yourself the goal of increasing your plant foods each day. Start with 2-3 and build up slowly from there. Remember, herbs and spices count, not just fruit and vegetables, as do pulses, nuts, legumes and seeds.
Here’s a few examples of gut-happy meals for mums. (Please adjust if you have any allergies or are pregnant. You can see the NHS advice on what’s safe to eat in pregnancy here.):
- Breakfast: porridge made with oats, a tablespoon of chia seeds and your milk of choice. Once cooked, top with frozen berries, some nut butter and a generous pinch of cinnamon. (Plant foods tally: 6)
- Lunch: salads are a great way to eat the rainbow. Remember to wash all fruits, salads and vegetables thoroughly first. A base of watercress and rocket works well and then add more vegetables. Try sliced red and yellow peppers, chopped spring onions, cherry tomatoes and avocado. Add some tinned chickpeas, and a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds, then add your dressing of choice. Follow up with a palmful of blueberries. (Plant food tally 10)
- Dinner: roasted vegetables are a great base for a meal. Take your pick! Think colour. I love courgette, aubergine, celery, carrot, sweet potato, mushrooms and broccoli (again, please wash thoroughly). You can add pasteurised halloumi or crumble pasteurised feta on top, or add a tin of drained butterbeans, heated through with some lemon zest and black pepper. (Plant food tally: 10)
I recommend increasing fibre slowly, so start with adding two or three new plant foods a day. The above is just an example of how fibre-rich, gut-happy meals can look.