Depression, as we’ve talked about in several other blog articles, affects millions of Americans every day, even children. Of course, scientists and doctors have been trying to determine what causes depression for decades and have made some progress. But the truth is, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding depression, its causes, and the best way to prevent and treat it.
One exciting connection made of late is that the health of a person’s ‘gut’ can affect them and possibly be one cause of depression. Today we’ll look at the facts surrounding this and how you can clean up your gut to help fight depression. So grab a glass of kombucha, open your mind, and read on.
What Is the Gut?
The gut is another term for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, known as the digestive system or the digestive tract. The entire GI system includes the esophagus, pancreas, gallbladder, stomach, liver, small intestine, and colon. It also includes your mouth on the one end and your rectum on the other.
The gut is one of the most complex systems in the human body and one of the most vital. One of the reasons for this importance is the ‘gut microbiome,’ the millions of microorganisms like bacteria that live there. (There’s approximately 1 kilogram, or about 2 pounds, in every adult’s gut, which is more overall weight than the human brain!) Now, don’t be alarmed because the vast majority of these gut microorganisms are beneficial to your health. For example:
- They keep your immune system healthy.
- They prevent you from becoming obese.
- They extract nutrients from the food you eat.
- They can help improve symptoms of depression. (Ding ding ding! We have a winner!)
The Gut Microbiome Is Directly Linked to the Brain
What’s fascinating about the gut is that it’s connected directly to the brain via the central nervous system (CNS). That includes the enteric nervous system as well, creating the so-called ‘gut-brain axis. The axis is also bidirectional, which means that information flows both ways, allowing the microbes in the gut to communicate directly with the brain and vice-versa!
Recent Studies Show a Direct Link Between Gut Health and Depression
Several recent studies have shown a direct link between depression (and other disease processes) and gut health. This study in 2018, for example, concluded that “There is a high correlation between stress-related mental symptoms (such as anxiety) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This correlation has provided a stimulus to study the importance of the gut-brain axis. More than 50% of IBS patients have comorbid depression or anxiety.”
Like a Fingerprint, Every Person’s Gut Microbiome is Unique
Before a person is born, their gut is 100% sterile. However, when their body passes through the birth canal, it picks up a wide variety of microorganisms. They include Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Prevotella primarily. These are acquired through a vaginal birth. (Staphylococcus and corynebacterium are obtained through a C-section.)
The diversity and the gut function are directly influenced by many things that happen to a baby in the first few weeks and months of life. This can, later in life, be one of the reasons a person stays healthy or, conversely, gets sick more often than others (and suffers from depression).
The Evidence Shows Breastmilk is Superior To Formula
If you read our blog regularly, you know we’re big fans of breastfeeding. (It’s the best food your baby can eat, no question.) As we mentioned above, every person’s gut microbiome is different and is affected positively and negatively by what they eat (and their body encounters) as infants.
Not surprisingly, Breastmilk has been shown to create a more robust, healthier gut microbiome than formula (even the best brands). Does it affect the occurrence or severity of depression later in life? Scientists aren’t 100% sure on that, but they believe it’s a distinct possibility. One reason is that, while infants who have been breast-fed have a lower microorganism diversity, their gut is more stable than infants fed formula.
Scientists Believe that Gut Homeostasis Correlates with Mood Stability
A review in 2017 on the impact of food on psychiatric conditions found that when the gut achieves homeostasis (stability), a person’s mental health is also stable. They found that people with an unstable gut had higher amounts of immunoglobulins in their blood, which they believe is caused by bacterial lipopolysaccharides. (In layperson’s terms, their unhealthy gut was causing a harmful reaction.) They also found that patients who were depressed had higher immunoglobulins in their blood, which put an even finer point on their findings.
The Mediterranean Diet Is Purported to Be Best For Fighting Mood Disorders like Depression
No, we’re not referring to s specific diet plan when we talk about the Mediterranean diet, but an overall lifestyle. People who eat a Mediterranean diet eat more healthy fats, which can change the levels of BDNF in their body, a protein that helps control a wide variety of brain functions. Scientists believe that too low BNDF can contribute to mental situation conditions like depression and autism, and even schizophrenia.
The Mediterranean diet is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, flavonols, and other powerful nutrients. It’s characterized by eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, cereals, and fish, along with a high amount of olive oil. It’s also low in dairy products and meat, as well as alcohol. Conversely, when you eat the standard American diet (ironically, SAD), it can increase your risk for depression and obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Signs That Your Gut is Unhealthy
If you are worried that your gut might be causing your depression, you may wonder what types of symptoms and unhealthy gut can cause. It’s quite a few actually, including:
- A regular upset stomach or IBS
- Unintentional weight gain or weight loss
- Skin problems like eczema
- A diet that’s very high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup
- Having food intolerances or allergies
What You Can To Do to Improve Your Gut Health
Luckily there are plenty of things you can do to improve your gut microbiome, improve your gut health, and that reduce your symptoms of depression (or prevent it altogether). They include:
- Getting more (and better) sleep.
- Eating slowly and chewing your food thoroughly.
- Taking probiotic supplements.
- Drinking plenty of water.
- Changing to the Mediterranean or other diet that’s higher in non-processed foods and fiber and lower in salt, sugar, and fat.
The correlation between gut health and depression is clear. The healthier your gut microbiome is, the less likely you’ll suffer the devastating effects of depression. The good news is, changing your gut health is relatively simple. It involves changing your diet and eating habits, which anyone can do relatively quickly. Also, for you new mothers out there, make sure your baby gets breastmilk rather than formula. It’s the best way to start their gut on a lifetime of good health.