Visionary philanthropy is equipping young researchers to discover the connections between diet, nutrition, gut health and mental wellbeing

School of Nutrition Sciences
Fruits and vegetables with a water bottle on a green background
Photo credit: Vitalii Pavlyshynets
When we say, “you are what you eat,” we tend to think it applies only to our physical wellbeing. Today, that saying is taking on new meaning at uOttawa as we discover deeper connections between diet and psychological wellbeing.

Thanks to a generous $5.8 million anonymous donation to the School of Nutrition Sciences in 2017, the University of Ottawa is building a critical mass of young researchers equipped to drive progress in understanding the role that diet, nutrition and the gut microbiome play in depression, anxiety and mental illness.

“We want to find out how people can better support their mental health by making healthy choices in their daily eating habits,” says Susan Tosh, the lead researcher and former director of the School of Nutrition Sciences.

The gut, along with its microbiome, is a complex ecosystem. Some call it the body’s “second brain” because it contains many neurons and neurotransmitters and communicates with our central nervous system.

“The impact of what is happening at uOttawa is to work on prevention, on diet changes that make people happy rather than taking a pill,” says Parviz Sabour, a researcher in genetics and evolutionary biology, who collaborates with Professor Tosh’s research team on whether changing dietary habits can reduce the incidence of depression in people with Type 2 diabetes.

The research is interdisciplinary, says Dr. Riadh Hammami, an associate professor at the school. “It needs two or more researchers with different backgrounds to quickly advance fundamental understanding.”

Among the new generation of scientists unravelling the mysteries of this gut-brain axis and its relationship to nutrition, diet and mental well-being is postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ahmed Hammad.

Hammad and his supervisors, Dr. Krista Power, associate professor at the School of Nutrition Sciences, and Dr. Mark Norris at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, profile the microbiota in children admitted to the eating disorder clinic.

Tracking microbial changes during refeeding treatment could lead to adding prebiotics or probiotic-rich foods to a patient’s diet to improve physical and psychiatric recovery.

Probiotics are live microorganisms which confer a health benefit when they are consumed and help to improve the function of the microbiome. Prebiotics, on the other hand are foods or supplements that promote the growth of beneficial microorganism and establish a healthy microbiota.

This would really help as a supplementary treatment under our current standard of care for patients,” says Dr. Hammad.

Dr Hammad and 20 other master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral fellows are supported by the generous anonymous gift.

Another researcher passionate about exploring this new frontier is Yasmina Ait Chait. Her work could prompt a shift from prescribing medication to suggesting adjunctive or alternative treatments for mental health conditions.

As part of her graduate studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Ait Chait ran weeks of experiments using a series of large reactors that mimicked the human digestive system, to examine the impact that antidepressants and other psychotropic medications have on the human gut microbiome.

“The research can help look at antidepressants in a new way — it’s not only their effect on the nervous system, but also their side effects,” she says. “It’s important, especially for human health. You are resolving a problem and possibly saving a human life.”

The $5.8 million donation was made over several years starting in 2017 and is helping Professor Tosh and her colleagues build a collaborative research program. In addition to funding a cluster of research talent, it has allowed the University to purchase state-of-the-art equipment, including the reactors essential to Ait Chait’s research. That technology, combined with the expertise of fellows and faculty, has made the University of Ottawa a leader in this promising, but highly complex field.

“I am really grateful to the donors for investing in this novel research at the early stages of our understanding of the links between diet and mental well-being,” says Professor Tosh.

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