By 2020 it is estimated that depression will be second to heart disease as a major cause of morbidity worldwide. Therefore, it is imperative that researchers discover novel ways to reduce the incidence of depression without necessarily resorting to antidepressant medications. Although helpful for many people, these drugs are associated with a high incidence of side effects. In fact, almost a third of users in clinical trials experience side effects from antidepressant use.
Furthermore, Australia has become the second highest prescriber of antidepressant medication with prescription rates doubling between 2001 and 2011! Therefore, finding alternatives to antidepressant medication is the primary focus of many mental health researchers. However, it is important that we look for effective and safe strategies to address the underlying causes of depression rather than simply looking for ways to mask the symptoms.
There is a growing area of interest by mental health researchers between the gut and brain, and the effect that each has on each other.
Although this area of research is in its infancy, there does appear to be a relationship between depression and poor gut health, especially since depression is associated with gut conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Furthermore, high stress levels contribute to gastrointestinal hyperpermeability (‘leaky gut’), which also seems to influence brain function. Plus, animal studies show that a sterile gut (a gut with no bacteria) leads to an overactive stress response (known as the HPA axis response). This stress response can be lowered by the addition of a single strain of ‘good’ bacteria!
Therefore, if future research proves that improving gut health does reduce the symptoms of depression, then healthcare practitioners around the world can offer probiotics, prebiotics, healthy foods, and other natural products to their patients as a simple, inexpensive, and healthy way to improve their depressive symptoms. Best of all, this strategy is associated with far fewer side effects when compared to conventional treatments using antidepressant medication and provides a range of additional health benefits.