This Emerging Antidepressant Treatment Doesn’t Require A Script

There’s an emerging way to treat depression, and it doesn’t require a script, says herbal medicine expert, Reece Carter. The new front line for treating mental illness is diet –­ and the ingredients for happiness are likely already sitting in your fridge.

With almost half of us expected to have an episode of mental illness in our lifetimes, the news that diet might be an effective treatment is an exciting development. The link between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression itself isn’t new, and can most likely be attributed to the shared use of serotonin – our ‘happy hormone’ – between the nervous and digestive systems. In fact, anti-depressants are commonly accepted to be an effective treatment for IBS.

What has remained a bit of a mystery though – until now at least – is whether it works the other way around. Can prolonged digestive upset trigger a change in mood?

The gut–mind connection

After a bit of chicken-or-egg research, a study published in July this year showed that two thirds of people who suffer both digestive and mental symptoms actually had the tummy troubles first. This opens up whole new potential opportunities for treating mental illness by improving gut health.

gut health

Of course, natural therapies have been a part of the mental health discussion for a long time. St John’s Wort, for example, has received a fair amount of attention after being shown to be as effective as regular antidepressants, but with fewer side effects.

What’s exciting about dietary therapies though, is that no supplements are required, nor any expensive super foods plucked from the depths of the Brazilian rainforest. Do I hear the collective sigh of relief from bank accounts everywhere?

Yep, this is pure food as medicine. And it comes down to two simple guidelines: balance your gut bacteria, and decrease intestinal inflammation. 

Ways to balance gut bacteria and soothe your intestines

Get some happy bacteria with pre- and probiotics

The local inhabitants of our gut have been receiving a lot of attention of late, and quite rightly since they are linked to just about every chronic condition known to man. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that to completely understand human health we need to consider not just the organism, but the entire human ecosystem.

Given the right circumstances, it may not take long at all to see results. Recent research revealed that nutritional interventions can alter the gut microbiome –that’s health nerd talk for ‘gut bacteria’– much faster than we initially thought.

For mental health in particular, we want to ensure healthy levels of bifidobacteria are present. In a practical sense, fermented foods rich in probiotics are the way to go: yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. Kefir in particular contains kefiran, a substance that may directly increase bifidobacteria numbers.

FOS prebiotics

You also want to load up your plate with vegetables containing high amounts of prebiotics. Think asparagus, leek, garlic, onion, and Jerusalem artichoke. If you’re on a low-FODMAP diet and find these foods bloat you, you might just have to start slowly.

Avoid intestinal inflammation by avoiding refined carbs and sugar

The trickiest part of reducing inflammation in the gut is removing the offending foods. These will be different for everyone, so it requires that you really pay attention to your body and how it reacts after eating. If you find an ingredient gives you bloating or discomfort, maybe ease off it while you concentrate on healing the gut.

The one thing everybody should do though, is limit their sugar and refined carbohydrates. Too much of these feeds bad bacterial overgrowth, so opt for a diet higher in fibre and protein, lower in starchy carbohydrates, and with just enough healthy fat to feel satisfied. You might want to keep alcohol consumption down, too.

Adding anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric and slippery elm may help speed the gut-healing process up, and these can both be easily worked into smoothies. Fennel and peppermint are great natural options to quickly treat bouts of bloating. And it just so happens that they taste delicious alongside licorice root in a tea.

A word before you make the swap

But before you go racing to flush your meds, it’s important to note that this is emerging research and may not be right for everyone.

It’s highly likely that future discoveries will deliver us with sophisticated nutritional treatments for the management of mental health, but for now it’s important to remember that depression is a complex condition that requires individual assessment and treatment.

Usually, a multi-faceted approach that includes counselling, pharmaceuticals and lifestyle changes delivers the best results. So for now, it’s best to include these dietary measures alongside medical treatment, and not instead of it.

Reece Carter is a qualified Naturopath, herbal medicine expert and Australia’s very own ‘Garden Pharmacist’. From the planter box to the pantry and with a lifelong passion for all things green, this self-professed herb nerd has the answers.