Did you know that your gut and your mood mirror each other? And if you’re prone to depression you may also be prone to constipation? The next time you have any digestive issue, take a look at your mood. How are you feeling?
Inside our gut is a tiny little brain. Okay, it doesn’t really look like a brain, but there is a complex system of neurons (brain cells) down there, and they function like a mini brain. One that feels more than it thinks. Think of the feeling of butterflies in your stomach.
This is the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and its primary job is digestion. To move food through the gut it uses and even manufactures many of our neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). The ENS makes 90% of the serotonin (our “feel good” neurotransmitter) and 50% of the dopamine (our “reward” neurotransmitter) in our body. So it makes sense that we can feel mood issues in our gut.
And, it’s looking like the bacteria living in our gut, our inner ecosystem, stimulates the production of these neurotransmitters. The balance of our gut bacteria equals the balance in our neurotransmitter production.
The ENS is actually pretty self-sustaining. It doesn’t really listen to our big brain—it has its own job to do (mostly digestion). But our brain needs a lot of information and possibly/probably neurotransmitters from the ENS. It’s looking more and more like our brain isn’t really in charge of everything, it just likes to pretend it’s in charge.
When our neurotransmitters are out of balance in our brain or in our gut we may feel symptoms:
- Low levels of serotonin/dopamine = depression and constipation
- High levels of serotonin/dopamine = anxiety and diarrhea
So, it would make sense if something helped balance one symptom, it would balance the other…right?
Well, we can’t say for sure…yet. But things are looking promising. Some studies have found a correlation between taking a probiotic supplement and lower levels of anxiety, in about two weeks. And anti-depressant medications are known to stimulate digestive issues like diarrhea by increasing the level of neurotransmitters around our neurons.
As well, people diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a condition with a variety of flip-flopping digestive issues, have a high rate of also having a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression.
They do seem connected, so the next question is…what can we do about it?
The most logical answer, while we wait for some extra definitive research, is to support our gut and thereby possibly our mood, with our diet. It’s possible that if we feed our gut bacteria its favourite diet, it will thank us with some great neurotransmitter production (including GABA, an anti-anxiety neurotransmitter blocker…it’s all about balance).
I must stress that diet doesn’t replace counselling or other forms of important mental health support. We need to treat our lovely brain as kindly as we treat the rest of our body by seeking good practitioners trained in mental health issues. I would love it if counselling was as normalized as seeing the dentist…hopefully one day.
Get your gut bacteria into balance with diet
- Feed your gut a good probiotic supplement and fermented foods (like unpasteurized sauerkraut or kimchi). The probiotic seeds your gut, and the fermented foods feed the good bacteria and help to create a happy environment for them.
- Eat more plant-based foods—your gut bacteria loves to munch on the fibres from plant-based foods, like veggies. The American Gut project has found a direct correlation between a diet high in a variety of plant-based foods and a very healthy and diverse gut bacteria population. Eat your veggies!
- Do some gut healing—our gut walls can sometimes be damaged or inflamed, and this can wreak havoc on our gut bacteria. Add gut healing foods like homemade bone stock, aloe vera juice, or L-glutamine into your day to keep your intestinal walls healed and healthy.
Lisa Kilgour, rhn is Nature’s Fare Markets’ Registered Holistic Nutritionist. She is Board Certified in Practical Holistic Nutrition and provides free half hour one-on-one nutrition consultations in our stores. Check out the appointment schedule on page four and book your free appointment in-store today or online at naturesfare.com.
Learn more: lisakilgour.com
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.