This year, I think we have all struggled somewhat with personal challenges to our mental well being. We have been affected by stress about the health and safety of family members, and our children’s education. We have not been able to socially connect in the way we might normally, and also had to perhaps deal with financial upset. Anxiety and worries leading to poor sleep habits further affects our ability to achieve and maintain a level of calm. Covid-19 feels like the never-ending story of 2020. On V-Day, I shed a tear listening to the story of 90 year old Margaret Keenan and her confidence in being the first, non-trial person, to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Coming up to Christmas, it really does feel like 2021 will be a better year, for all of us.
The Gut and Mental Well Being
It seemed pertinent that I was then scheduled to watch a webinar on mental health and the gut microbiome. The webinar was industry focused. Discussion centred on functional foods and what we, as consumers are looking for in foods that might improve mental wellbeing. What is incredibly positive, is that none of us seems shy any longer, to let others know when we are struggling with things. It’s almost like Covid-19 and 2020 has somehow given us all permission to say out loud: ‘I am finding life difficult at the moment’. ‘I am not really coping’. Personally, I have felt like I am on a roller-coaster of emotions at times – sometimes coping admirably, and sometimes not. So to learn from the webinar, that dairy, in the context of an evidence based trial, might impact my ability to cope with anxiety was really interesting.
Nutrition and Mental Health
We have known for a long time that individuals who eat a great diet, and exercise regularly, tend to manage stress and anxiety much better than others. Certain foods are associated with cognitive performance e.g. oily fish, nuts and seeds. We also have the psychological impact that when we eat well, we feel good about ourselves. We feel happy in ourselves that we are making efforts to eat nutritious foods and so affect our health generally.
The Bi-Directional Nature of the Gut-Brain Axis
We have also known for a long time that the gut and the brain communicate with each other all the time. Much of the relationship has in the past focused on satiety i.e. what communication mechanisms exist to relay to the brain that I have eaten. What might happen in terms of neurotransmitter production – chemical messengers – which tell me to stop eating. Interestingly, these neurotransmitters are produced not only in the brain and nervous system, but also in the gut. And now the focus is shifting towards how the microbiome i.e. the bacteria living in the gut, might affect the production of these neurotransmitters and so impact the brain, our decision making, and our ability to manage anxiety.
The Helpful Bacteria
Two types of bacteria are considered particularly beneficial to the gut, but also to the brain – Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. High levels of stress seem to reduce the concentration of lactobacillus in the gut. Can these bacteria affect mental health and the gut microbiome?
The Gut-Microbiome and Anxiety
This question was addressed during the webinar. One of the presenters looked at mental health throughout the lifespan. Dr Kathrin Cohen Kadosh described how fine-tuning of the gut-brain axis occurs during the second decade of life. The second decade is a time of enormous change, we start secondary school, we go through adolescence and puberty, we are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. Socially, we search for our tribe. This decade is also where 2/3rds of mental health problems are considered to start – problems which we often carry with us through life.
The Dairy Study
Dr Cohen-Kadosh described a comprehensive study which looked to psychological profiling, nutritional markers, stool sampling, and brain imaging, and a targeted dietary intervention . The idea was to look for changes in neurotransmitter production. The study population was divided into two groups – those classed as of low anxiety traits and those with high anxiety traits. For the scientists among you, the study was a randomised control trial, and the intervention was the provision of a dairy derived prebiotic: galacto-oligosaccharide. Prebiotics are those foods which contain nourishment for the good bacteria in the gut. Most prebiotics are plant based with just the one dairy derived galacto-oligosaccharide identified.
Following the dietary intervention, those individuals who were considered of high anxiety traits presented with less anxiety than before the intervention, and also suggested an improvement in positive decision making. Those individuals who were already of low anxiety traits did not show any difference in outcomes.
Dairy and Mental Health
As an industry focused webinar the idea is to look to and develop supplements of various kinds to improve mental wellbeing. But I thought about how during that 10 – 20 year age band there is a tremendous turn down in dairy intake, nor does green vegetable intake (another source of prebiotics) tend to meet recommended guidelines. Children, from the age of 5 tend to reduce their intake of dairy products. Could this be a way forward in helping us all to improve our mental health generally? Children and adolescents have an increased need for dairy servings but worries about weight gain, and turning to sugar free fizzy drinks rather than milk as a drink, affects overall intake.
Perhaps supporting children and adults to maintain a good intake of dairy not just because we are aware it’s good for our bones, but also because it may help us manage anxiety and stress is worth considering. Consuming dairy may increase the helpful Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus colonies affecting the gut microbiome and mental health.
What is a serving of dairy?
See below for suggested servings – aim for ≥3 servings per day to meet your needs.
- 200ml milk
- 120-150ml yogurt – plain low fat or Greek preferred versus fruit flavoured which may contain added sugar or sweeteners
- 28g cheese