In two recent Dutch studies, researchers found a link between the bacteria in the intestines and depression. People with depressive feelings often seem to have a different composition of bacteria in their guts. What does this mean for the treatment of depression?
The Trimbos Institute recently reported that the number of adults with a depressive disorder had increased sharply in the past twelve years. Psychiatry is under great pressure, and the waiting lists are getting longer. The two more recent studies may be the starting point for new treatments that may even prevent depression.
A gut microbiome with a low diversity of bacteria or an under- or over-representation of a specific bacterial species is associated with depressive symptoms. This is the conclusion of researchers from the Erasmus MC research ERGO and the Amsterdam UMC HELIUS study.
There are trillions of bacteria in our gut, which together form the microbiome. If these bacteria are out of balance, they appear to be able to lead to feelings of depression.
You have to bully those bacteria away
Exactly how these gut bacteria affect mood still needs to be investigated further. “But of course we have suspicions,” says researcher Robert Kraaij from Erasmus MC.
“It may be related to the substances that gut bacteria produce, such as serotonin and butyrate, which play an important role in the regulation of emotions.” Serotonin is, among other things, associated with well-being. It is also referred to as the ‘happiness hormone’.
The research shows that there are bacteria that people with depression have less of, but also that there are bacteria that they have more of.
“If our suspicions are correct, and we know which bacteria to lend a helping hand to and which to get rid of, we can use techniques to achieve that. Food and probiotics in the form of pills could then play a big role, play,” says Kraaij.
Can a drink like kombucha help?
According to his colleague and co-researcher André Uitterlinden, microbiome pills already exist. “They are sometimes used for serious intestinal diseases. Such a pill contains bacteria that are released in the intestines, so you can influence the microbiome.”
Stores are already filled with probiotic supplements, yogurt drinks, and products like kombucha that contain all kinds of bacteria. Do they work too? Uitterlinden: “Unfortunately, it is too simple. The research shows that there are bacteria that people with depression have less of, but also that there are bacteria that they have more of.”
“The complex interplay requires precision. The microbiome is a little different for everyone, genetic differences also play a role here. So you can’t give everyone with depression exactly the same drug. We have to look at it individually.”
Lifestyle is also an important factor. “You can come up with a wonderful microbiome pill, but in addition, that microbiome must also be taken care of. Otherwise, it will be destroyed after a while,” says Uitterlinden.
Diversity on your plate means diversity in your stomach.
So: move more, don’t smoke and eat healthy. Eating fiber in particular can keep the microbiome in balance and have a beneficial effect. They serve as a source of nutrition for the ‘good’ intestinal bacteria.
More variety on your plate
According to the Gastrointestinal Foundation, the Dutch eat far too little fiber on a structural basis. For women, the advice is at least 30 grams a day, for men 40 grams. But on average we eat barely 20 grams of fibre, says Marianne Rook, health information officer at the Gastrointestinal Foundation.
“Fiber is mainly found in plant foods: vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds, grains and whole grains.” Variety is important, explains Rook. “Diversity on the plate gives diversity in the stomach. So eat not only fruit, but also vegetables and legumes, so you make all the ‘good’ bacteria happy.”
Preventing depression would be even better
More research is needed to draw larger conclusions, but the studies from Erasmus MC and Amsterdam UMC are a good starting point. Uitterlinden: “In the Netherlands, we are a global leader in research in such large population studies of the microbiome and depression. It would be wonderful if we could ultimately contribute to reducing depression symptoms.”
“It would be even better to be able to prevent. In the hospital, we always mope with the tap open: people get sick. Of course, we would much rather that fewer people get sick in the first place. Prevention is better than cure.”
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