Okay, let’s talk about gut health! If you’ve been at all connected to social media or the news in the last ten years or so, you’ve likely heard many in the field of nutrition talking about a “leaky gut” and “gut health.” I know I first started hearing about it in 2014 after I’d given birth to my first child and was considering doing the Whole30 and Paleo Diet. In all honesty, though, I thought it was a bunch of hooey; salesmen using scare-tactics to market expensive products. Maybe you’ve had the same skeptical perspective. If that’s the case, in these next couple of posts, I hope I can address some of the basics of the term “gut health” and show you how taking care of your digestive system is integral to supporting your mental health.
What, exactly, is “the gut”?
The gut includes your whole digestive tract, specifically the intestines (which are often referred to as the microbiome). It is a community of tiny organisms (microbiota), some good and some bad. When the microbiome is healthy, the good microorganisms (good gut flora) manage the bad ones and provide ongoing support for other good ones. When the bad microorganisms are left unchecked and get out of control, we experience digestive distress and illness. The healthy bacteria, in turn, help with the development and delivery of neurotransmitters.
Why is my digestive system relevant to my mental health?
The intestinal tract (the gut) is also referred to as “the second brain” because your gut is responsible for major neurotransmitter production! Over 90% of your body’s serotonin is produced by your gut, along with GABA, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine, to name a few others. By sending signals to your brain through the vagus nerve, your gut health influences sleep, mood, stress hormones, memory, and cognition. People who have on-going digestive distress will often experience mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
If we want our first brains to function at their best, we need to turn some attention to the “second brain” – the digestive system. This is where food is broken down and absorbed to be useful to our bodies. If this system fails or is not working well, we will experience disruption in our brain’s chemistry.
Impaired mental health follows poor digestion.
Some of the symptoms of poor digestive health include abdominal pain after eating, diarrhea and constipation (which are common in people with a history of sexual and physical abuse), problems with focus, attention and memory, food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and even autism.
What is a “leaky gut”?
It is possible for the lining of the intestines to break down and become overly permeable. Intestinal permeability is often called “leaky gut.” This is when toxins and allergens are able to break through the barrier of the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. These toxins can cause allergies, autoimmune disorders and systemic inflammation. It is also common in mental illness across the board. So what makes your intestines “leaky”? A diet low in fiber, excess bad microbiota, alcohol, certain medications (particularly NSAIDS like aspirin and ibuprofen and antibiotics), age and many other illnesses can cause intestinal permeability. Stress is also a major factor, as well as a diet high in sugar, which leads to inflammatory cytokines. These cytokines negatively affect the whole digestive process. Food allergies and intolerances (namely gluten and casein intolerances) increase intestinal permeability. Healing a leaky gut needs to be a first step in supportive mental health treatment.
I’m finding that this is big news for many who have suffered with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even Bipolar Disorder. After spending some time considering why it is so astounding for people to hear that they might be able to essentially cure symptoms of mental illness with nutrition, I think it comes down to this: oftentimes, we get lost in the diagnosis. Major Depressive Disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar Disorder Type I or II. Even Autism Spectrum Disorder. The first time you hear something like that, you’re likely to experience a combination of many emotions. Some people are grateful to put a name to an experience. Others are angry because of the connotations of the diagnosis. Still others don’t know how to sort out the emotional experience of receiving a mental health diagnosis. And in our current culture, diagnoses are morphing into something they are not meant to be: identities.
See, a diagnosis is really just a name for a set of symptoms. It is meant to benefit your care team. It directs research, education and treatment planning. Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health counselors all use that diagnosis to arrange an appropriate course of care to help you heal and live a beautiful life. It’s not meant to become something you wear like a name tag, but that is so often what I hear. Listen closely, and I’ll bet you start to notice it, too – “I am Bipolar” or “My son is ADD.” That diagnosis becomes definitive and we submit to it, like it has control over the path of our life. And we are helpless to just “survive” with those diagnoses, rather than actually hope for healing.
I think that’s why this field of using nutrition and integrative medicine for mental health is so thrilling. How incredible to learn that you can significantly improve the way you think, feel and even behave simply by adjusting your eating habits or adding some supplements to an already healthy diet. I feel such great joy thinking about the freedom that this can bring people who have spent so many years feeling powerless to a diagnosis. Many lives are filled with hardship and pain and struggle; but there is hope! I am so thankful that our great Creator provides all of our needs, according to His glorious riches. Medicine, therapy, and even food.
I’ll look at ways you can improve your digestive health in the next post. Stay tuned, and follow the blog for instant updates!