The impact of COVID-19 on human health will be felt for many years to come. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost every country (90%) since the start of the pandemic has experienced health service disruption.1 Stephen O’Hara, CEO, OptiBiotix, reports
With continuous mounting pressure on global health services, there is now an increased risk of adverse health effects on those that are most vulnerable, including people living with undiagnosed chronic health conditions.
Stress, anxiety and depression are a major cause of concern too, with more than 60% of countries worldwide reporting disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people during the pandemic.2
In the UK, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation reported that one fifth of unemployed people surveyed (19.7%) have had suicidal thoughts and feelings during a 2-week period, whereas twice as many of those who are unemployed (25.85%) were not coping well with the stress of the pandemic compared with people in employment (12.25%).3
Elsewhere, in the US, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that more than half (53%) of Americans reported that their mental health last August had been negatively impacted because of worry and stress related to the pandemic.4 This is in comparison with the 32% initially reported in March.
Many European countries have also seen just how devastating the impact of COVID-19 has been on mental health. Eight in ten Italians have stated that they require psychological support, more than a third of Dutch citizens said their anxiety and stress had increased, and Sweden has seen a dramatic increase in self-reported mental health problems.5
Fortunately, the European Parliament has made some inroads with the EU4Health programme, which is a long-term public health funding project with a dedicated section for mental health.
But what does this mean for the future of mental health? And what role does it play in chronic lifestyle conditions such as heart disease and obesity?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 6.8 million adults are currently suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), with women twice as likely to be affected compared with men.6
It’s part of a long-term condition that causes people to feel anxious about a range of situations and includes both physiological and physical symptoms, such as restlessness, sleeping difficulties, dizziness and heart palpitations.
Historically, studies have shown a connection between anxiety disorders such as GAD and the onset of heart disorders or an increased risk of cardiac issues.
Predominately, this is caused by fluctuations in the body that adversely affect both blood pressure and heart rhythm, as well as making the blood more likely to clot.
For example, a recent study found a 26% lifetime prevalence of GAD in Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) patients, whereas another found that 14% of heart failure patients were prevalent to GAD. Both percentages are significantly higher than the 3–7% of lifetime prevalence previously recorded for GAD in the general population.7
Yet, it’s not just heart health that anxiety disorders can influence. High cholesterol, sedentary lifestyles and weight gain have all been intrinsically linked to anxiety disorders in recent years.
Emerging scientific evidence has found that when obesity prone and obesity resistant male and female rats were fed a highly processed “junk food” diet, it led to significant increases in weight and stronger anxiety like behaviour.
In addition, the data suggested that rats that were most susceptible to obesity — in combination with psychological alterations and weight gain — which led to considerable enhancements in anxiety like behaviours.8
Scientific evidence is also coming to the fore in clinical human trials too. In a recent study involving more than 3000 Canadian women, those who had been taking antidepressants as part of ongoing mental health treatment were statistically more likely to be obese.9
An increased preference for sweet and savoury foods, in combination with antidepressant medication, can also lead to weight gain.
In addition, the study noted that those who had suffered depression or anxiety between the ages of 19 and 30 years of age were impacted the most by weight issues later in life.
As can be seen, the complex relationship between anxiety and heart health, alongside anxiety and weight gain, is intriguing. Both can be triggered by underlying mental health issues and investigating the root cause of this is an area that we are currently exploring at OptiBiotix.
As a company that develops microbiome modulation technology, we are keen to understand how the human microbiome can be influenced by both internal and external stressors. It’s why we have developed solutions, such as LPLDL, a probiotic that can modify an individual’s gut microbiome using a naturally occurring strain of the bacterial species Lactobacillus plantarum.
As it demonstrates exceptional capacity to modulate the metabolism of bile acids, it can aid conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as support overall heart health and is backed by statistically significant results.
Of course, finding the root cause of anxiety can be problematic. Each individual’s situation is unique but, with the right support, those suffering with long-term mental health conditions can be guided down a more positive path.
Charities such as The British Heart Foundation, American Heart Association, Mental Health Europe and more can help individuals by guiding them to online resources, such as webinars, podcasts and online therapy sessions.
The life sciences industry is also helping to combat mental health too, with funding into scientific research to understand the cause and effect of stress, sleep disorders and anxiety on human health.
To support these efforts, OptiBiotix has funded several scientific studies to understand how our microbiome modulation technologies can aid consumer physiological well-being.
Our latest independent research, done by the University of Roehampton, has discovered that the award-winning weight management ingredient, SlimBiome, has a positive impact on the gut microbiome.10
The 4-week academic study highlighted that the formulation, comprising glucomannan, oligofructose and chromium, can be used as part of a calorie-controlled diet to reduce body weight, body fat, waist and hip circumference, as well as cravings for sweet and savoury foods in obese female adults.
SlimBiome, then, is tackling the root cause of weight gain. It’s helping consumers to help themselves by controlling their hunger and food cravings, leading to an improvement in mood and a more sustainable approach to weight management. With SlimBiome, consumers can adopt a much healthier lifestyle without relying on willpower alone.
However, as there are no quick wins to a healthier lifestyle, it means that the relationship between weight, anxiety and heart health remains complex.
Although the root cause of an individual’s long-term issues may stem from weight gain, it cannot be held solely accountable for chronic health conditions. Genetics, culture, new viruses (or mutant strains of existing ones) and physical activity all have a part to play, and we must consider these as we continue to explore the human microbiome.
Right now, governments, the healthcare system and the life sciences industry must work together to ensure a normal future for all by tackling the global health crisis.
Yet, we must not forget mental health as the focus shifts to a vaccine rollout. We believe pre-emptive measures, better science and adequate support for mental health will be the key to preventing chronic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and more.