The healing power of the sea

The sea has long been recognised for its mysterious healing powers with seaside resorts all the rage in Victorian times.

A few years ago my brother fell ill with a severe mental illness. I reasoned if the sea could calm itself, maybe it could help calm his mind.

During a storm we walked to a cliff top and watched the waves smash onto the rocks below. Breathing in the salt rich spray we felt rejuvenated.

Why sea air and sea water might have helped is still a mystery, but it's a treatment long forgotten in the era of modern medicine.

We live on the edges of a blue planet that should be more appropriately called Ocean than Earth, and maybe we've simply forgotten where we came from.

I persuaded my sceptical brother to spend some more time out on the water and we kayaked across Sydney Heads.

Unfortunately, he tipped over in a rough section and I had to rescue him, and he was terrified the sharks would get him.

He wanted to retreat to the safety of the land but the next week I coaxed him onto a much bigger boat, and we sailed out to sea and spent a few nights on board.

His mood had clearly changed and he said he felt like he had some strength now to face his invisible demons.

His doctor though didn't share his new-found faith in this the sea and doubled his dose of anti-depressants and prescribed a potent anti-psychotic to help him sleep.

Mind over water

I couldn't get any scientists to test my theory, mainly because of lack of research funding.

One suggested I do my own qualitative study so I wrote an article about my old fashioned "sea-cure" in a mental health publication and about 20 people jumped at the chance to take part in some trials.

Understandably about half pulled out at the last minute saying they were not feeling well enough.

But just as many managed to overcome their trepidation and the first group of three women had no sailing experience but plenty of experience with mental illness.

They'd all spent time in psych wards and had tried many treatments, all to no avail.

Lily admitted she was at her wits' end as her marriage and stellar career as a lawyer had been destroyed by bipolar disorder.

On a yacht I told them the toilet was called "the head" because they used to be at the front of tall ships as they could only sail with the wind behind — so the smell went forward.

This seemed a good time to explain the science behind our new "sea cure" as to whether mental illness starts in your head or the other end.

I explained that if all the organs in the body were given a vote as to which one was in charge, the brain would surely win.

However, the brain has an unsung silent partner in the gut. A colony of microbes, known as the "second brain" or core microbiome, produces the vitamins and chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that are essential for brain function and our immune systems.

"The new field of microbiota research is telling us that our gut microbes are absolutely central to health and disease," Professor Felice Jacka — director of Deakin University's Food and Mood Centre — said.

"These bugs strongly affect our metabolism, body weight, immune system and, the new evidence suggests, our mood and behaviour."

'Where are all the crazy people?'

The women pick up the basics in a pleasant 12-knot southerly. We tack down the very empty harbour and they start to feel at ease on the water as the conversation flows.

There's a certain solidarity among people who have all experienced the same nightmare with lives seemingly randomly shattered for no reason.

After a few hours of sailing, I begin to explain the next part of the gut theory. All good skippers know if you want to avoid a grumpy crew they must be fed … and it's the same for microbes.

The food we eat shapes the colony in our gut with beneficial bacteria needing high-fibre foods to survive. Known as prebiotics, food such as onions, lentils, oats, and pearl barley survive the trip through our stomach and small intestines intact to feed the microbes in the colon or bowel.

"Mmm, food for bacteria," they all say and I admit it doesn't sound too appetising, but it's a lot more familiar than most people think, as I break out a box of carrots, celery sticks and hummus dip, pickles, and some cheese.

Besides being gut-friendly I explain it's sailing-friendly as it can be eaten on the go.

The experience is having an immediate impact with Lily smiling and saying this is one of her rare "good" days.

The three became more confident on the helm, keen to take the tricky challenge of steering with their eyes closed while using just the feel of the wind on their face to maintain a course.

We head back towards Manly for lunch and a swim.

Dropping anchor at an empty Store Beach, Lily can't help but comment: "Where are all the crazy people? Oh, there they are in the city."

The prebiotic main course was freshly barbequed chicken breast on a pearl barley salad made with fresh parsley, garlic, olive oil, tomato, cucumber, Kalamata olives, salt, pepper, and mint.

For dessert is rhubarb, yogurt, and shavings of dark chocolate.

They are all pleasantly surprised and want to know more about how to cultivate their good gut bacteria.

Eating habits have 'huge implications' for mental health

In recent clinical trials, Deakin University's Food and Mood Centre found at least a third of the people with depression reported a significant improvement in their mood and symptoms after switching to a Mediterranean-style diet.

"We now have many, many, scientific studies, across countries and age groups, telling us that diets high in unhealthy 'junk' foods increase the risk for depression, while a healthier diet — with nutritious foods such as vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, quality, unprocessed red meat and the like — protects against depression and related mental health problems," Professor Jacka said.

All three women on board admitted they had neglected their diet, and they are not alone.

"In Australia, less than 5 per cent of us are eating enough vegetables and legumes, while it's even worse for children — less than half a per cent of children are getting enough veggies in their diet," Professor Jacka said.

"This has huge implications for both our physical and mental health."

Over several months about 10 people, aged from 19 to 61, took part in the sailing trials. All the trainee sailors reported a marked and lasting improvement in mood and they are all trying harder to eat for their gut health.

One young woman in her 20s, who had struggled for years with depression, has finished her degree and is now working as a journalist in the country.

As for the first three: Lily has moved into her own home and returned to work as a lecturer in law at university, Juliette published her dream book Cocktails and Mocktails and Ann is a busy artist and even admits looking forward to cooking.

Maybe it's all just luck as to how we fare in life, but science is confirming that our gut instinct is very real and time spent on the water can help people with a mental illness get back on course.