In part 1 of this 3 part series, I talked about how digestion and poor food choices can contribute to autoimmune diseases and allergies. Part 2 will discuss the connection between digestion and mental health.
The connection between digestion/ poor food choices and mental health is very near and dear to my heart. Throughout my life I have struggled with both depression/anxiety as well as digestive issues, and only through improving my diet and optimizing my digestion was I able to realize how closely the two are connected.
First let’s look at the 5 neurotransmitters that are responsible for the emotions we feel including depression, anger, energy levels and problem resolution:
Research shows that there is a direct correlation between the stores of these neurotransmitters in the body and our personal brain chemistry. Lack or imbalance can contribute to emotions like anger, depression, hyperactivity, memory loss, drug/alcohol cravings and bad moods.
How is digestion involved?
The levels of these neurotransmitters are directly effected by our nutritional choices; including intake of amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. This is where intake and absorption of high quality protein is essential. Sources like pasture raised eggs, grass-fed beef and wild caught fish are all great options.
If our diet is lacking in these things, OR we are not digesting the nutrients in our food properly, we are unable to produce the neurotransmitters and amino acids necessary for optimal mental health.
What about poor food choices?
In terms of nutritional choices, regularly consuming foods that you may have a sensitivity to can damage gut lining (as mentioned in Part 1). The difference here is that instead of an autoimmune reaction, ‘leaky gut’ will inhibit the production of the 5 neurotransmitters responsible for optimal mental health. It is important to note that sub-optimal digestion, or 'leaky gut' can manifest in a number of ways that will vary from person to person, whether this is a physical stomach ache (the most obvious), autoimmune conditions, mental health problems, or hormonal imbalances (all of which were my inspiration for writing this series of posts :) ).
For example, lets say you’re like me and sensitive to gluten. 2 years ago I traveled to Europe and you better believe I was going to eat some bread. Continuous exposures to gluten containing foods that you aren’t used to eating (hello baguettes) can cause the intestinal lining to become permeable (leaky gut). Although for me this didn’t result in any digestive discomfort, within a few days of traveling I began to feel waves of sadness and depression that I hadn’t experienced in years since changing my diet. This was a huge reminder for me that choosing more nutrient dense foods (meats, fruits, fish, vegetables, eggs, etc.) play a vital role in the management of my moods. I also find that when eating more gluten-containing foods I tend to lose weight, which (for me) is a big red flag that I am not absorbing proper amounts of amino acids from the foods I am eating.
***Sidenote: many people also find the opposite to be true, and will experience weight loss when food sensitivities are removed, and digestion is improved.
If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issues and are interested in seeing whether changing your diet makes an improvement, an elimination diet that removes gluten, dairy and added sugar (real or artificial) for at least 1 month is a good place to start. During this time it is also extremely important to ‘heal and seal’ the gut lining with things like bone broth, L- glutamine, aloe vera, slippery elm, and licorice. Make sure to include as many nutrient dense foods as possible including a wide variety of protein (amino acids!). Always focus on eating lots of organic produce, and be sure to increase essential fatty acids like avocado, coconut, olive oil and ghee. Finally, prioritize chewing extremely well so that a heavy burden is not placed on your digestive system.
Want more on how to eat real food?
It is important to note that i’m NOT saying that changing your diet will completely eliminate any mental health symptoms you may have. Eliminating gluten and increasing sources of nutrient dense foods was something that made huge changes for me personally, but everyone is different. Mental health problems are very complex and multi-faceted; contact your Doctor if you have questions concerning your mental health.
Stay tuned for Part 3 on hormones!