Although you might be under lockdown, you are still allowed to go to the supermarket to buy food. The following information might help in terms of making healthier choices on what foods to buy.

When we are under high stress, we can often reach for foods that are “comforting” (like cookies, donuts, cake, pastries, and chocolate bars), but these foods may not be the best choice for feeding your brain under stressful and demanding circumstances. Comfort foods are often calorie-rich but nutrient-poor.

Further, under high stress (and it doesn’t actually matter what has caused the high stress, whether it be a natural disaster like an earthquake or fire, or witnessing something really traumatic or being stressed because of financial and health uncertainty), the reactions our body goes through can be quite similar. We release adrenaline. This is part of our natural alarm response system.

Adrenaline is an essential neurotransmitter that is released as part of the fight-flight response. It enables our body to get us to safety, shut down non-essential functions, and make sure the muscles needed for flight or flight get activated. Cortisol, a hormone, is also essential for the alarm system to function optimally.

Unfortunately, over extended periods of time, the alarm system can go into over-drive, and this is one factor that can lead to re-experiencing memories, flashbacks, hypervigilance, being on edge all the time, feeling anxious and panicky when reminded of the traumatic event, struggling with sleeping and having nightmares.

Making neurotransmitters (like dopamine or serotonin) and hormones (like cortisol) requires micronutrients, which are numerous kinds of vitamins and minerals. This is a well-established scientific fact. Micronutrients like zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and niacin are all essential for making neurotransmitter chemicals for the brain and the body. If your body is depleted of these nutrients, then either it won’t have sufficient nutrients to make these essential chemicals, or it will redirect all resources to the fight-flight response (as it is so vital for survival) and there won’t be much left for ensuring optimal brain function to do things like concentrate, regulate moods and sleep.

Consequently, as micronutrients get depleted at a high rate during times of stress, we need to replenish them in greater quantity from our food (and perhaps other sources).

Where can we get these micronutrients from?

Answer: Nutrient-dense foods; real food, not ultra-processed foods.

Compare a banana to a cookie; one obtains far more of these micronutrients (like potassium, magnesium, folate) that are required for brain function from a banana. Eating kale chips over potato chips would also provide more nutrients. Reaching for a carrot stick and dipping it in hummus would be better for your brain than gorging down a commercial meat pie (although meat pies can be healthy if they contain lots of vegetables too). Choosing nuts and seeds over pretzels would also give you better brain food.

Overall, to cope well with stress your goal should be to increase intake of plant food and food high in nutrient density while still getting adequate protein, fats and carbs. Fish is a great source of protein and of essential fatty acids, which are also vital for brain function. In eating these types of foods, you would be shifting your diet from a Western type of diet (ultra-processed, high in sugar) to a Mediterranean-style diet (high in fruits and veggies, fish, nuts, healthy fats and low in processed foods).

Therefore, stop counting calories and start focussing on nutrients, especially nutrients that are good for your brain!

Would this be sufficient to sooth the over activated alarm system in a situation of high and chronic stress? Possibly, although some people might need more nutrients than what they can get out of their diet, even if it is a healthy one. There are many reasons for this, some of which reflect reduced nutrient density in modern foods, some of which are due to our own specific genetic make-up, and some have to do with the health of our microbiome (the millions of helpful bacteria that live inside us, especially in our gut).

If you do need to consume more nutrients than what you can source from your diet, or you are struggling with cooking due to your particular circumstances and the stresses you are experiencing, or you are time poor because of family or work demands, what do you take in terms of a supplement? Research from the Mental Health and Nutrition Lab in Christchurch, NZ found that following the Christchurch earthquakes as well as other research on stressed communities shows that B vitamins in particular can be helpful. A recently published meta-analysis confirmed the positive effect of B vitamins on reducing stress. In addition, some may find reduction of intrusive thoughts require additional minerals as well.

Basic tips

  1. Start with whole foods diet approach including good fats, nuts, seeds, fish, modest amount of meat, vegetables, fruit, whole grains
  2. Shifting towards eating “real” as opposed to processed foods naturally eliminates unnecessary food additives such as artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives that do not add nutritional value and may contribute to psychiatric symptoms in some people
  3. Limit sugar intake (sugar is everywhere in processed foods, energy/fizzy drinks – look at labels to spot the hidden sugar)
  4. Watch caffeine and alcohol intake doesn’t creep up
  5. Eat a good solid nutrient-dense breakfast: e.g., omelette with vegetables, muesli (oats, nuts, raisins) with milk, yogurt, fresh fruit
  6. Aim for 80:20. That is mostly real food but still enjoy treats! And when you do, savour them!

Being in lockdown for some might mean having a lot of extra time on your hands. Maybe take the opportunity to try new recipes, learn what to do with chick peas or how to cook beans, make bread, yogurt or cheese, But overall focus on what you can control. And when it all gets a bit too much, focus on your breath. It is amazing what a few deep breaths, slowly inhaling, holding and exhaling, can do to calm the mind.

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder with an estimated prevalence rate of 5.3% among children and of about 2.5% among adults. It is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity, being associated with significant impairment of social, academic, and occupational functioning across the lifespan.

However, despite many efforts, the exact etiology of ADHD still remains unknown and data about modificable risk and protective factors are largely lacking. Recent evidence has suggested an association between inflammation, immunological disturbances and ADHD. Supporting this idea, an increased incidence of immune-mediated disorders (e.g. asthma, allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, allergic conjunctivitis, psoriasis, thyrotoxicosis or type 1 diabetes) accompanied by elevated serum/plasma and cerebrospinal levels of inflammatory markers (especially interleukin (IL)-6) or auto-antibody levels (e.g. antibasal ganglia antibodies, antibodies against the dopamine transporter) have been found in these patients.

Importantly, recent studies have shown the gut flora as an important immunoregulator (1-3) and it is hypothesized that an imbalance in the gut microbiota (dysbiosis) may have a negative effect on cerebral development and behavior (4). About 95% of all circulating serotonin, dopamine or noradrenaline precursors are produced by our gut microbiota, being this ‘enteric nervous system’ bidirectional connected to the central nervous system through hormonal or immune/inflammatory pathways.

In line with this, recent findings suggest that some aliments as probiotics can not only revert dysbiosis, but also modulate brain neurodevelopment, activity and improve cognition, mood and behavior due to their immunoregulatory and anti-inflammatory properties (5-7).

Therefore, understanding the microbiota and how the gut connects to the brain would be important both for the better comprehension of the biological bases that underlie some psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, as for the future development of new evidenced-based drugs for these conditions.

This was co-authored by Josep Antoni Ramos-Quiroga, MD PhD psychiatrist and Head of Department of Psychiatry at Hospital Universitari Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona, Spain. He is also professor at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

REFERENCES:

1. Felix KM, Tahsin S, Wu HJ. Host-microbiota interplay in mediating immune disorders. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2018; 1417(1):57-70.

2. Yadav SK, Boppana S, Ito N, Mindur JE, Mathay MT, Patel A, et al. Gut dysbiosis breaks immunological tolerance toward the central nervous system during young adulthood. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.2017; 114(44): E9318-27.

3. Mandl T, Marsal J, Olsson P, Ohlsson B, Andreasson K. Severe intestinal dysbiosis is prevalent in primary Sjögren’s syndrome and is associated with systemic disease activity. Arthritis Res Ther.2017;19(1):237.

4. Rogers GB, Keating DJ, Young RL, Wong ML, Licinio J, Wesselingh S. From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Mol Psychiatry. 2016; 21(6):738-48.

5. Slykerman RF, Kang J, Van Zyl N, Barthow C, Wickens K, Stanley T, et al. Effect of early probiotic supplementation on childhood cognition, behavior and mood. A randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Acta Paediatr.2018; 107(12):2172-78.

6. Kane L, Kinzel J. The effects of probiotics on mood and emotion. JAAPA. 2018; 31(5):1-3.

7. Mayer EA. Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication. Nat Rev Neurosci.2011;12(8):453-66

 

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Our body is colonized by trillions of microorganisms that are important for vital processes. Gut microbiota are the microorganisms living in the intestinal gut and play an essential role in digestion, vitamin synthesis and metabolism, among others. The mouth and the large intestine contain the vast majority of gut microbiota whether the stomach only contains few thousands of microorganisms, especially due to the acidity of its fluids. Microbiota composition is constantly changing, affecting the well-being and health of the individual.

Each individual has a unique microbiota composition, and it depends on several factors including diet, diseases, medication and also the genetics of the individual (host) (Figure). Some medicines, especially antibiotics, reduce bacterial diversity. Strong and broad spectrum antibiotics can have longer effects on gut microbiota, some of them up to several years. Genetic variation of an individual also affects the microbiota composition, and the abundance of certain microorganisms is partly genetically determined by the host.

The main contributor to gut microbiota diversity is diet, accounting for 57% of variation. Several studies have demonstrated that diet’s composition has a direct impact on gut microbiota. For example, an study performed on mice showed that “Western diet” (high-fat and sugar diet), alters the composition of microbiota in just one day! On the other hand, vegetarian and calorie restricted diet can also have an effect on gut microbiota composition.

Prebiotics and probiotics are diet strategies more used to control and reestablish the gut microbiota and improve the individual’s health. Probiotics are non-pathogenic microorganisms used as food ingredients (e.g. lactobacillus present in yoghurt) and prebiotics are indigestible food material (e.g. fibers in raw garlic, asparagus and onions), which are nutrients to increase the growth of beneficial microorganisms.

In the last years the new term psychobiotics has been introduced to define live bacteria with beneficial effects on mental health. Psychobiotics are of particular interest for improving the symptomatology of psychiatric disorders and recent preclinical trials have show promising results, particularly in stress, anxiety and depression.

Overall, these approaches are appealing because they can be introduced in food and drink and therefore provide a relatively non-invasive method of manipulating the microbiota.

AUTHORS:
Judit Cabana-Domínguez and Noèlia Fernàndez-Castillo

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Maladaptive or uncontrolled impulsivity and compulsivity lead to emotional and social maladjustment, e.g. addiction and crime, and underlie psychiatric disorders. Recently, alterations in microbiota composition have shown to have implications for brain and social behaviors as we have been explaining in our lasts blogs. The microbiota-gut-brain axis may be involved in this process but the mechanisms are not fully identified (1). The supplementation of probiotics can modulate the microbial community and now has been suspected to contribute to ameliorating symptoms of a psychiatric disease with possible influence on social behaviors (2). To date, no randomized controlled trial has been performed to establish feasibility and efficacy of this intervention targeting the reduction of impulsivity and compulsivity. This gave us the idea to perform a study to investigate the effects of supplementation with probiotics, working with adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which in most cases present high levels of impulsivity, compulsivity and aggression.

Probiotics for healthWe call our project PROBIA, which is an acronym of “PROBiotics for Impulsivity in Adults”. This study will be performed in three centers of Europe including, Goethe University in Frankfurt, Semmelweis University in Budapest and Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) in Barcelona, the coordinator of the clinical trial. We are planning to start recruiting patients in January of 2019 and obtain the results in 2021. In our study, we will explore the effects of probiotics by measuring the change in ADHD or BPD symptoms, general psychopathology, health-related quality of life, neurocognitive function, nutritional intake, and physical fitness. The effect of the intervention on the microbiome, epigenetics, blood biomarkers, and health will be also explored by collecting blood, stool, and saliva samples.

We are looking forward to having the results of this amazing study in order to understand the mechanisms involved in the crosstalk between the intestinal microbiome and the brain. If improvement effects can be established in these patients, new cost-effective treatment will be available to this population.

 This was co-authored by Josep Antoni Ramos-Quiroga, MD PhD, psychiatrist and Head of Department of Psychiatry at Hospital Universitari Vall d’Hebron in Barcelona, Spain. He is also professor at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Sources

  1. Desbonnet L, Clarke G, Shanahan F, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Microbiota is essential for social development in the mouse. Mol Psychiatry [Internet]. The Author(s); 2013 May 21;19:146. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/mp.2013.65
  2. Felice VD, O SM. The microbiome and disorders of the central nervous system. 2017 [cited 2017 Oct 16]; Available from: https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0091305717300242/1-s2.0-S0091305717300242-main.pdf?_tid=b52750d8-b2ae-11e7-819b-00000aab0f02&acdnat=1508185089_58e99184d2c0f677d79ff1dd88d02667

 

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