I’ve Got a Gut Feeling

There have been some pretty profound discoveries made about the human body in recent years. I mean, we have chopped up the human body stem to stern, seven ways to Sunday and only recently discovered that there is an entire lymphatic system in the brain. And, while we have known for many years about the good and bad bugs that populate the microbiome of the gut, we have only recently started exploring how changes in that microbiome affect our health and well-being.

Up to 90% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the gut. That’s right; the happy hormone is primarily produced in the belly and not the brain. A 2015 study at Caltech showed that certain microbes in the gut actually help produce serotonin. In fact, it looks like the gut cells that produce serotonin depend on the microbes to produce the majority of the hormone. If you take away those microbes, serotonin production plummets.

From here, we are going to try to twist our brain in a knot for a moment. It’s the prevailing thought that people with depression probably produce lower quantities of serotonin in their brain. Many of the medications prescribed to treat conditions like depression work by blocking serotonin from being reabsorbed into the nerve cells they came from. This effectively pools serotonin in our brain to make us feel calmer, happier, etc.

Other studies have suggested these drugs may do more, like improving growth and connectivity in nerve cells in the hippocampus, but it does beg the question: If the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut, why are we focused on the 10% that is produced by the brain? And, while I know that serotonin produced anywhere in the body ultimately has to be processed in the brain making these drugs also slow the reabsorption of gut serotonin, wouldn’t it make sense to improve the serotonin production of the largest serotonin producer?

Oh, my brain hurts!

And, to twist our poor brains a little more, it appears that the gut microbiome has more to do with mental health than just serotonin production.

There is a reason why the gut is called the second brain. Its function goes way beyond just digesting our food. The health of our gut effects just about every other system in our body; from our immune system to our nervous system to, well, pick a system. It makes sense that it would have a profound impact on our mental health.

There has been a flurry of studies, primarily in mice, where scientists meddle with the microbe concoction in the gut. Then they step back and watch what happens. What they are finding is that they can significantly change, not only the physical health of the mice, but their mood with just a few adjustments to the balance of these gut microbes. A shift here and the mice are bold and adventurous. A shift there and the mice are timid and anxious. Another shift and they are listless and showing signs of depression. You see where I am going with this? It seems that when you mess with the gut, the gut messes with you.

The psychological community is starting to rally around the potentially huge impact gut health may have on mental health. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that instead of anxiety and depression triggering bouts of conditions like IBS, it might actually be the reverse. Imbalances in the gut microbiome may be a trigger for anxiety and depression. Since your mood and stress levels are also known to affect the gut, this could mean we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of gut and mental health issues.

Gah! So, what do I do?!

With this kind of information, it stands to reason that every blasted person on this planet should be working to improve their gut health. But, like most things, that is easier said than done.

These are a few suggestions about what you can do to improve your gut health:

 

  • Get yourself tested for food allergies. When I had to get off of my medication, one of the first things the Whole Health Center did after my bi-polar diagnosis was set me up for a food allergy/sensitivity blood test and a series of appointments with a nutritionist. I had been having sporadic problems with my gut for years. The extreme mood swings from dropping the meds, the astronomical highs and lows, just made those problems an absolute tsunami.
Now, I am not completely sold on the accuracy of the allergy blood test, but it is a relatively easy place to start looking at foods that might trigger a “gut reaction”. Or you can just jump right to the food elimination process. Eliminate what you think are trigger foods for a while and then slowly introduce them back in one at a time and see how you feel.
  • Eat more whole foods. You’ve heard it a million times before but, unfortunately, your diet really does impact your mental health. Your gut can only process what you give it; so if you give it junk, it will process junk. I am right there with you! It is so hard to stick with healthy when convenience and unhealthy options abound! I have a really tough time with this. Just do your best to reduce your intake of refined foods and increase your intake of whole foods. Your gut, and mind, will thank you.
  • Try adding in fermented foods. They help to balance the flora in the gut. Take a shot at drinking some kombucha or eating small amounts of kimchi, pickles, pickled vegetables or sauerkraut every day. Even a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar in water will do the trick.
I feel like I should give a word of caution about fermented dairy or soy products, however. Many people swear by yogurt and kefir, but I have found that even organic, non-sweetened versions of these can send me running to the bathroom. Miso and tempeh don’t seem to be a problem for me, but for people sensitive to soy, they could be a trigger. As with anything new that you introduce into your diet, be mindful of how it makes you feel.
  • Take probiotics. Yes, fermented foods contain probiotics, but taking a probiotic supplement is a good idea, especially with our diets. There are some drawbacks to probiotics: you pretty much have to take them all the time (until we figure out how to permanently recolonize our gut with the good bugs), they should be used with caution when using antibiotics and there are a bazillion different brands out there, many of which are not what they claim to be.
I have tried several probiotics, but there are only two that I have stuck with. The first is called VSL #3. It is a refrigerated non- prescription bottle of capsules that was actually recommended to me by my gynecologist. It has an impressive amount of studies behind it and works wonderfully for me. I get it from the pharmacy department at my regular grocery store, but you can get it at places like Costco or even online. You might even be able to ask your pharmacy to order some. Two downsides: It can be pricey and people who are lactose intolerant will need to check and see if it is okay to take. The second is actually a 4-step probiotic kit. It comes from Dr. John Duillard’s company called Lifespa. (www.lifespa.com) Dr. Duillard is a science based Ayurvedic doctor with some really impressive street cred. He was actually the doctor who helped me quickly recover from the physical withdrawal effects of getting off of my medication. I have used this kit twice, about once a year, to reset my gut and his Flora Restore capsules are a safe bet for regular probiotic use.
  • Reduce stress. Ok, I can hear you laughing all the way over here. This is so important and has so many health benefits, but I will be the first one to tell you that this is a struggle for me. I am working on this, but I am open to suggestions on how to make this a regular habit. Anyone?

 

Of all of the things I have researched over the last several years, the state of our gut has the greatest potential for impacting our mental health. Good or bad, our gut is trying to tell us something and we should listen to that gut feeling.

 

Have suggestions on how to improve our gut health? Leave them in the comments below.

 

Resources:

Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in the Gut, 4/9/2015, Caltech online newsletter www.caltech.edu/news/microbes-help-produce-serotonin-gut-46495

Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut, Charles Schmidt on March 1, 2015 www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-health-may-depend-on-creatures-in-the-gut/

The Gut – Brain Connection, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

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While the articles are written to inform, entertain and support those who visit the site, the Anxious Artist is not a licensed medical professional and the information on these pages is not intended to replace regular medical care. Research and testimonials may show promising results with alternative treatments for mental illness, but these should always be discussed with a qualified medical practitioner before being implemented.

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