Depression is frequently associated with gastrointestinal inflammations and autoimmune diseases as well as with other ailments in which chronic low-grade inflammation is a significant contributing factor.
Many depression and anti-anxiety medications have side effects of gastrointestinal distress and constipation. Likewise people with IBS and Crohn’s usually complain of anxiety and depression.
While science is still not certain which comes first – poor GUT health or poor mental health what we do know is that the two are inextricably connected.
Current research is studying this link between the nervous system and the digestive system. We know there is a constant exchange of chemicals and electrical messages between the two systems. In fact, many scientists often refer to them as one entity; the brain-gut axis. Therefore, what affects the stomach will directly affect the brain and vice versa.
In his book called The Second Brian, Michael D. Gershon, M.D. states that “serotonin plays a critical role in digestion and without it we would not have peristalsis (movement).” He was one of the first researchers to discover that 95% of the body’s serotonin resides in the gut! This is our enteric nervous system and it can function independently from the central nervous system as well as be a part of it.
“The nervous system exerts a profound influence on all digestive processes, including motility, ion transport associated with secretion and absorption, and gastrointestinal blood flow. Some of this control emanates from connections between the digestive system and central nervous system, but just as importantly, the digestive system is endowed with its own, local nervous system referred to as the enteric or intrinsic nervous system. The magnitude and complexity of the enteric nervous system is immense – it contains as many neurons as the spinal cord.
The enteric nervous system, along with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, constitute the autonomic nervous system. The enteric nervous system can and does function autonomously, but normal digestive function requires communication links between this intrinsic system and the central nervous system. Connection to the central nervous system also means that signals from outside of the digestive system can be relayed to the digestive system: for instance, the sight of appealing food stimulates secretion in the stomach.” 1
Sugar and processed foods lead to poor digestion and feed pathogens such as yeast and bacterial overgrowths. Blood sugar swings (hypoglycemia) can trigger mood changes and some people are in fact very sensitive to sugar. Sugar also leads to increased inflammation.
It’s difficult to think about shopping and even harder to prepare food when you feel depressed, stressed or have anxiety so many people resort to eating prepared foods that offer very little real nutrition and virtually not supportive nutrients to help digest their food. Interestingly, most people with low serotonin crave carbohydrates – just the opposite of what their bodies really need!
Eating many anti-serotonin producing foods such as soda, coffee, diet foods, chips, crackers, sweets and low fat foods certainly impedes a depressed person’s ability to generate needed serotonin. Better, pro-serotonin product foods would include healthy protein (from wild caught or pasture raised animals) and healthy fats. These foods contain tryptophan which converts to needed serotonin.
Remember that SSRI’s (selective, Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) do not help your body to produce more serotonin. These drugs simply keep the channels open so the serotonin you do make can be used by the cells.
Since most serotonin in the body is produced in the GUT doesn’t it make more sense to get the the root cause of the problem and look at what’s going on inside your gut?
Indeed, many forward thinking functional doctors believe this is a better and more effective way to help those with depression. Dr. Datia Kharrazian, DHSc, CD, MS has written extensively about the role of food, stress and the health of the GUT in his book Why isn’t my brain working. Dr. K says that brain degeneration is actually a result of poor gut microbiome. Others such as leading psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan MD and Chris Kesser, MS. LAc agree that helping those with depression must be founded in a gut friendly diet.
Let’s address the cause!
People who are depressed and not feeling well may spend a great deal of time lying on the couch, or generally being inactive too. This inactivity also negatively impacts your digestion.
All of this contributes to poor GUT flora and lack of digestive enzymes which in turn can lead to a host of digestive and bowel problems like gastritis, acid reflux, constipation and diarrhea. These all all “symptoms” and are clues pointing to a imbalanced microbiome.
Addressing poor GUT flora and improving friendly bacteria with probiotics and naturally fermented foods can actually help your body manufacture more of the healthy mood improving amino acids that you need. For example, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus was found to have a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior. Adding a high quality probiotic in addition to eating foods like yogurt, kefir is a good idea.
The importance of re-establishing proper GUT flora and digestion cannot be over emphasized! This is because bacterial overgrowth’s and over production of yeasts can amplify the effects of depression. Interestingly many people who have depression, anxiety or other mood disorders are highly likely to have yeast overgrowth and or food intolerance’s. Certainly anyone with IBS, Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis needs to establish and maintain a healthy flora. 2
Adding more fresh, living foods helps increase digestive enzymes. Eating two pieces of low GI fruit, such as apples or berries or raw vegetables like greens, celery or parsley can begin to help re-establish a healthier digestive tract. One of the big advantages of juicing is the easy intake of raw foods in an easy to digest package.
Another overlooked factor in eating take out and convenience foods is the poor fats used in these products. These oils are bad for all of us but are especially dreadful for anyone suffering from depression, anxiety or stress. The most common cooking oils used in these products (and by most restaurants) are corn, soybean, and canola oils. These oils are not only Genetically Modified oils, but are the wrong fats for our cells. All chemical and electrical impulses are dependent upon proper cell signaling. And unless we provide the correct essential fatty acids proper cell signaling cannot happen. Healthy oils like coconut, olive macadamia nut and those found in wild caught fatty fish like salmon or in avocado’s are the best. Anyone who has depression should be using these healthy oils and avoiding those used in commercial products. Supplementing with DHA/EPA can make a big difference.
Other contributing factors
Be aware that vitamin D deficiency is associated with inflammation and depression. One previous study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels. Getting out in the sun in warmer weather can boost mood, plus many people who have very low levels of D notice improvement once they begin supplementing.
Low blood sugar levels can also drive mood swings and depression. If you frequently feel irritable, sluggish, have difficulty concentrating or experience dizziness you very likely have low blood sugar. This is nothing to fool around with so get your blood tested (the A1C is a great test that provides a snapshot over the last 3 months) and begin making diet and lifestyle changes to stabilize your blood sugar immediately. Increasing frequency of meals or snacks and replacing carbohydrate and sweet foods with healthy protein and fats can go a long way to stabilizing blood sugar and reducing these mood swings.
Other research has shown that depression is frequently associated with gastrointestinal inflammation – a common symptom of food intolerance. By uncovering hidden food intolerance not only will physical symptoms benefit, but mental health symptoms can often show significant improvement. 3
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You can see that the food you eat certainly is a contributing factor in depression, anxiety and a host of other mood disorders. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to improve nutrition and create lasting healthy lifestyles that help us to manage these stresses better. This is precisely why I developed my signature Healing from Within Program.
Are you suffering from depression? I can help! Fill out my Are we a fit? form and let’s talk about it.