By: Stephanie Di Grazia, R.H.N, B.A
Our gut health and digestion are an extremely important part of our overall health and sense of well-being. It is only through proper nutrition and digestion that we are able to properly fuel our bodies and minds. However, in addition to providing us with nutrients, our gut and brain share a very complex and strong relationship. For this reason, our gut is often referred to as our ‘second brain’.
Studies have shown that intestinal and bowel disorders are often correlated with poor mood, anxiety and depression. This is, in part, because our gut and digestive tract contain more than 70% of our immune cells, 400x more serotonin (our ‘feel-good’ chemical) than our brain, and 500x more melatonin than our brain (necessary for proper sleep patterns)1.
This correlation is mainly due to two factors. Firstly, when intestinal and bowel disorders are present, we are unable to absorb important nutrients for brain health. Without ‘brain nutrients’ like zinc, omega 3, and vitamin B, our brain does not have the tools needed for proper or optimal functioning. Of even greater interest, is the effect of a phenomenon called “Leaky Gut Syndrome”.
First off – what is leaky gut?
Your gut lining works like a barrier to keep larger particles like toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles from ‘leaking’ out of your digestive tract. When some of these undigested proteins, irritants, or toxic waste leak from the inside of your intestinal wall into your bloodstream, it creates an inflammatory immune reaction. This leads to symptoms in many areas of the body - including the brain - where it can cause migraines, anxiety, or depression.
Our fast paced lifestyles and the increase in processed and packaged foods filled with gluten, dairy, soy, and corn are major contributors to leaky gut. These foods are highly inflammatory for the majority of people and often inflame our guts, which can then inflame our brains and lead to mood and mind disorders. High sugar consumption, pesticides, environmental chemicals, antibiotics, and stress also contribute to inflammation, disrupt our cells and trigger intestinal permeability. Moreover, not only do these factors affect our ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients, they can lead to vitamin deficiencies that decrease our ability to sustain optimal cognitive and mental function.
In the brain, this inflammation provokes anxiety promoting chemicals and hinders serotonin and melatonin production. This in turn produces symptoms that mimic “depressive” symptoms such as lethargy, insomnia, decreased desire for social activity, lowered libido, poor learning skills, and weight changes. Psychiatric research has also observed that patients with higher levels of inflammation are less likely to respond to antidepressants, but more likely to improve with the introduction of anti-inflammatories 2, 3, 4.
What are some signs of leaky gut?
1. Food Sensitivities – If we are unable to break down the proteins in foods we may be sensitive to proteins like gluten (in wheat), casein (milk), and whey (dairy), they will wreak havoc on our gut. Repeated exposure to these foods creates permeability of our intestines, and subsequently these proteins leak out into the bloodstream along with other toxins. As a defense response, our immune system starts to release antibodies and produce an inflammatory response, in turn, making our bodies more susceptible to antigens, diseases, and imbalances in our body systems.
2. Malabsorption – Nutrient deficiencies result from leaky gut due to our inability to absorb vitamins and minerals because of poor intestinal function and increased permeability. This includes critical vitamins and minerals like B12, magnesium, and zinc that are critical for mood and brain health.
3. Mood Issues – Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between leaky gut and various neurocognitive disorders. For example, the inflammatory response characteristic of intestinal permeability triggers the release of cytokines and other chemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier and trigger depression, irritability and migraines5.
In taking a natural approach to combating leaky gut and improving your mental well-being there are several lifestyle and dietary measures that can make drastic improvements.
So what are some steps you can take towards healing your gut and brain?
1. Exercise: Exercise helps to control stress hormones, calms the nervous system, and builds muscle to support insulin sensitivity. It also releases endorphins and gets our bowels moving.
2. Diet: Seek food sensitivity testing or try an elimination diet to identify any possible intolerances that may be contributing to ‘Leaky Gut’. Avoiding dairy and gluten are a good place to begin, followed by other major allergens such as soy, peanuts, shellfish, eggs and citrus. Also focus on anti-inflammatory foods like wild fish, green vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, and ensure you’re getting plenty of fiber.
3. Supplements: Natural supplements can also be beneficial to help to lower inflammation and heal a leaky gut.
Fish oil: At least 1000-1500 mg EPA/DHA for anti-inflammatory and mood-boosting effects
Probiotics: Nourishing the gut with probiotics can help to heal the mucosal membrane, decrease feelings of anxiety and positively affect emotional processing. Studies have shown that individuals taking probiotics exhibited less anxiety, similar to what has been observed in some people taking antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication6.
Curcumin (turmeric): Powerful natural anti-inflammatory that helps decrease inflammation and oxidative stress in the gut.
L-Glutamine: Fuel to rebuild digestive tract cells and helps with intestinal repair.
4.Meditation / Relaxation: Help to increase parasympathetic response and support circulation to the GI tract and promote proper absorption of nutrients.
By considering the mind-gut connection and understanding the role of inflammation and immunity in our mental well-being we can consider an alternative model or solution to our battles with mental health. Through understanding the role of food and stressors on our gut health and how they can be at the core of our depression and anxiety and directly impact mood, energy, and wellness, we can take steps to heal our guts and heal our minds.
2 Inflammation and its discontents: the role of cytokines in the pathophysiology of major depression. Miller et al Biol Psychiatry. 2009 May 1; 65(9): 732–741.
3 Cytokines and cognition – The case for a head to toe inflammatory paradigm. Wilson et al. JAGS 50:2041–2056, 2002.
4 A randomized controlled trial of the tumor necrosis factor antagonist infliximab for treatment-resistant depression: the role of baseline inflammatory biomarkers. JAMA Psychiatry 70:31–41.