At first, you may not think that mental health and the gut are connected at all. After all, how could a mental illness like depression be caused by activity in the intestines? The truth is that brain health and function are strongly connected to wellness in the gut, and this is good news! By taking important steps to protect your gut health, you may be able to protect your mental health as well.
Before we explore how this works, let’s break down what depression is and what may trigger it.
Depression – What Is It?
Major depression as classified by the DSM-5 used by mental health professionals is far more than just a case of feeling blue. It can have significant effects on overall quality of life, touching nearly every aspect of daily activity from sleep to relationships and work. Everyone feels down sometimes. Major depression is different.
To be diagnosed with major depression by a licensed mental health specialist, individuals must experience five of the symptoms outlined below during the same two-week period. At least one of the symptoms should be a depressed mood or loss of pleasure. Diagnostic criteria include:
- Frequently depressed mood as observed by others or oneself
- Diminished interest in or pleasure derived from nearly all daily activities as observed by others or oneself
- Significant weight loss or weight gain, or marked changes in appetite
- Sleep abnormalities, such as insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep)
- Slowed thoughts or physical movements severe enough to be observed by others
- Persistent fatigue or energy loss noticed during routine daily activities
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt experienced every day or almost every day
- Impaired ability to think, focus, or make decisions as reported by others or oneself
- Reoccurring thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts
Depression is a widespread disorder that can significantly affect one’s quality of life and overall sense of wellness. Globally, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression, and it is the leading cause of disability. Close to 800,000 people die each year due to suicide, and depression impacts one in eight women during their lifetime – that’s more than twice the rate that depression affects men. Odds are that if depression has not affected you directly or indirectly, it has touched someone you know.
What Causes Depression?
It is commonly accepted that major depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. It is true that chemicals such as the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are involved in the process. However, billions of chemical reactions take place in the body that can have an effect on mood regulation. Doctors have often wondered why simply controlling the levels of key neurotransmitters doesn’t always positively impact depression. Research into major depression continues, but there are other factors that have been shown to have an effect on the disorder.
Genetic and epigenetic factors (in other words, social and environmental components) are thought to play a role in causing depression. It’s worth noting that genetic and epigenetic characteristics are deeply connected: epigenetics can activate a dormant genetic predisposition. This means that your genes may contain DNA that doesn’t activate and lead to health concerns until some event or environmental trigger causes it to.
Let’s dig deeper into potential causes of depression:
- Hormones: Changes in the body’s hormones can contribute to causing depression. Thyroid problems, menopause, pregnancy, and numerous other health concerns can result in hormone changes that affect mood.
- Stress and Trauma: Chronic stress and significant life events (both positive and negative ones) often precede depression. Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and countless other disorders. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as neglect, being spanked, domestic violence, verbal or sexual abuse, general household dysfunction, and living with a substance use abuser are also linked to depression and its severity later in life.
- Heritability: Children with parents who have suffered from depression are two to three times more likely to suffer from it themselves than children whose parents have not suffered from depression.
- Medications and Medical Conditions: Having a serious or stressful medical condition may not only affect one’s mood in the moment; it can be an epigenetic trigger for the onset of mental health issues like depression. Certain medications also list depression as a potential side effect.
The Brain-Gut Connection
So, how are the gut and the brain related? Inflammation.
Individuals with depression exhibit the typical features of an inflammatory reaction. One study has even found elevated levels of hs-CRP (high sensitivity C-reactive protein) in depression patients. In other research, giving inflammatory cytokines to individuals without depression actually caused symptoms of depression.
Although research on the link between inflammation and depression is still ongoing, the results of studies currently point strongly in the direction of bodily inflammation being a key factor in the onset of mental illness.
Fortunately, we have control over some of our body’s inflammatory responses, and there are actions you can take to reduce inflammation holistically.
How to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
In a previous post, we discussed why GI health is so important to your overall health. One of the things we covered in depth was bacteria in the gut. It turns out that bacterial imbalances in the intestines – such as diminished levels of beneficial bacteria or raised levels of bad bacteria – may be a contributing factor in the development of depression. Certain types of bacteria like Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus have even been shown to actively reduce inflammation levels.
In addition, dysbiosis, parasites, candida, SIBO, leaky gut, food sensitivities, histamine intolerance, and other issues can potentially bring about depressive symptoms by increasing overall inflammation in the body.
Consider these tips to reduce your inflammation levels:
Eat more probiotics
Numerous studies have shown that probiotic consumption significantly reduces the symptoms of depression. The next time you’re at the grocery store, consider picking up some of these items:
- mozzarella/Gouda/cheddar/cottage cheese
Balance your blood sugar
As tasty as sugar is, we’ve known for quite some time now that it causes inflammation. The trouble is: it’s addicting. Blood sugar imbalances can lead to mood issues and have significant other health consequences. Over time, blood sugar imbalances can even lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. You can do a sugar detox without sacrificing on taste, though! However you balance the sugar in your diet, preventing spikes in your blood sugar levels is crucial.
Clean up your diet
Poor nutrition is observed both before and after a depressive episode, indicating that poor diet may be a risk factor for developing depression. Nutrient deficiencies are also common in depression sufferers, especially Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and minerals. A simple blood test can tell you what nutrients you are deficient in and help guide your future dietary choices. Besides leading to nutrient deficiencies and blood sugar imbalances, a poor diet can boost inflammation levels.
Since your diet is typically well within your control and has the greatest impact on inflammation levels, start there. Remove added sugars, junk food, fast food, and processed foods from your life. Give your body some time to acclimate to the changes (sugar withdrawals are real!), and then see how you feel. You may not notice the effects of a clean diet right away, but we promise you that it will be worth it! If you need help along the way, we’re always here for you.
And remember: these tips do not replace your physician’s medical guidance. There is a place for medication as it’s needed. These tips are intended to improve your mental wellness but do not guarantee any kind of cure.
In case you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, please call:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
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