It goes without saying that the last two years have been hard on our moods. Worry and stress mounted to new levels leading many people to experience profound depression and anxiety. Even before Covid, 19% of American adults struggled with mental illness.(1)
Over 40 million people in the US have been diagnosed with some form of anxiety, and approximately 18 million people have depression.(2) Treatment options, including therapy and medication, though better than they have ever been, still need improvement. A recent study by the Hope for Depression Research Foundation determined that over 50% of patients with major depression do not respond to existing treatment.(3)
This may be due to the limitations of current treatment strategies. Therapy and medication are only two avenues. Really we should be considering other imbalanced organ systems in our overall assessment and understanding for true mood management. One critical organ system to consider is the digestive system.
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition in the gastrointestinal tract (stomach, small and large intestine) in which the normal, healthy, tight junctions of the epithelial cells become compromised or “leaky,” allowing toxins, microbes, and poorly digested proteins into the bloodstream. This inflammatory process is a common consequence of the Standard American Diet (SAD)—low in fiber, vegetables, fruits, and high in saturated animal fats, processed foods, and refined sugar. Eating inflammatory foods damages the GI tissue, setting up for imbalances that disrupt neurotransmitter and limbic (or emotional) health.
New studies on depression and anxiety find a connection to the inflammatory activation of the immune system, coining the term neuroinflammation. This trigger upsets brain chemistry, activating the excitatory-inflammatory process leading to depression and anxiety.(4) Where does this inflammation start? The leaky gut. For many people, feelings of anxiety and depression are the first presenting symptoms of digestive inflammation, even before gas, bloating, indigestion, loose stool, or constipation.
Ideally, gut tissue is home to a balanced gut flora. However, healthy, diverse probiotics cannot grow well on inflamed tissue. Gut flora actually work for us, activating vitamins that are cofactors in neurotransmitter biochemistry. They help digest foods and improve nutrient absorption. For example, serotonin (a neurotransmitter that when low is linked with depression) comes from the amino acid tryptophan, which you get primarily from eating meat. When leaky gut and poor gut flora occur, amino acids like tryptophan don’t get absorbed. In addition to that malabsorption, the B vitamins and other cofactors are poorly taken in. These cofactors are the car keys to operating the enzymes that balance out neurotransmitters.(5)
If you are struggling with difficult-to-treat depression or anxiety, know that other adjunctive approaches can help. Peoples’ Wellness practitioners have a wealth of understanding on the gut-brain connection and are here to help you. Please feel free to schedule a “meet and greet” with any one of our practitioners. Short on time or financial resources? Visit any of our stores and speak with our educated wellness staff.
Amy Nelson, ND* received her Naturopathic Doctorate from the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR where she studied nutrition, homeopathy, herbal and functional medicine. In addition, Dr. Nelson was the Associate at The IBS Treatment Center in Santa Monica where she treated irritable bowel syndrome and complex food allergies. Dr. Nelson utilizes her experience in natural medicine to address female and male hormonal imbalances, mental health, and digestive disorders. Amy is available for consultation at Peoples North.
*Although licensed in other states, Naturopathic Doctors are not currently licensed in Texas.
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- Mental Health America, https://mhanational.org
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders
- Lee CH, Giuliani F. The Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue. Front Immunol. 2019;10:1696. Published 2019 Jul 19. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.01696
- Limbana T, Khan F, Eskander N. Gut Microbiome and Depression: How Microbes Affect the Way We Think. Cureus. 2020;12(8):e9966. Published 2020 Aug 23. doi:10.7759/cureus.9966