Depression and the "Gut"

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

For a long time now, we’ve been taught to think that the only thing that matters when it comes to our food is the number of calories eaten. This obsession has led to us not paying much attention to the quality of our food (i.e. how nutrient dense the foods we eat are). To top it all off, the busyness of our lives often leaves us searching for what is quick, easy and affordable—after all, when you’re feeling rushed already, trying to eat healthy can feel like a giant burden!

The link between food-quality and mental health

More and more, we are discovering that what we eat matters, especially when it comes to our emotional and mental health. The standard American diet rich in processed foods that are typically laden with sugar and industrial seed oils, is very poor in actual nutrition.

This lack of nutrient density can lead to chronic inflammation, blood sugar regulation issues, and neurotransmitter imbalances (literally the stuff that “happy” chemicals like serotonin are made of). Thus, over time, such imbalances can lead to mental health issues such as depression, which has been been exponentially on the rise wherever Americanized foods are introduced.

By comparison, however, traditional foods across cultures are not only low glycemic (i.e. have a lower impact on blood sugar levels) and anti-inflammatory, but they are also rich in essential fatty acids, like Omega-3’s, which have been shown to play a significant role in the regulation of mood (Korn, 2016).

“It turns out that if your belly is in a bad mood, so is your mind.” - Dr. David Perlmutter

Let’s take a look at depression, for example. While we’ve been told over and over that depression is a disorder of the brain, we are finding that depression, along with other mental health conditions, may find their root cause in the health of the gut (or at the very least, the gut plays a significant role). In fact, author of Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, Leslie Korn, argues that “it would be difficult to identify any mental heal illness that did not have a physical symptom associate with it” (Korn, 2016, p.18).

What causes depression?

While we don’t know for sure, it is theorized that antidepressants work by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain. However, such chemicals are also produced in the gut, and according to research, are largely controlled by the ongoing symphony of bacteria going on in each and every one of us (Perlmutter & Loberg, 2015).

“Where there is mental illness, there is poor diet. Where there is mental illness, there is a long history of digestive problems” - Leslie Korn

For instance, tryptophan—an essential amino acid (essential meaning that we need to get it from our diet because our bodies cannot create it)—is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin; tryptophan is chiefly governed by our gut bacteria, as certain bacteria in our gut work to make the chemical available to us (Perlmutter & Loberg, 2015).

Thus, if a person is not properly digesting their protein, they are likely not getting the essential amino acids they need to successfully build neurotransmitters such as serotonin - 95% of which is found in a person’s gut (Korn, 2016). It’s not surprising then that researchers have found that people suffering from depression often times experience gastrointestinal symptoms and problems (Perlmutter & Loberg, 2015).

Tips to optimize your gut health

  • Eat a properly prepared, whole-foods diet to “nourish the first brain and the second brain”

  • Whenever possible, eat only when in a relaxed state (parasympathetic state). Take a few breaths before a meal, put down the smartphone, say a prayer, etc. All these things can help you eat more mindfully.

  • Eliminate exposure to additives, preservatives, hormones, toxic pesticides and fertilizers on food. Go for fresh whenever you are able.

  • Avoid pro-inflammatory foods like sugar, most vegetable oils, and simple starches Tailor your diet to your own needs. Try removing certain foods from your diet for short periods of time to see how they affect you

While there are those who downplay the role of the gut microbiome in health, it’s hard to make a case against addressing/optimizing one’s digestive health. Again, it is clear that what we put into our bodies—or more properly stated: what we absorb from the foods we eat—has a direct impact on the entire functioning of the body, and therefore, is either harmful to our health or health promoting.

If you have been struggling with depression, we can help. Contact us today to get started.

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