Eat your way out of depression
Nutrition-related health issues seem to take an age to become part of accepted medical practice. The medical establishment requires comprehensive scientific evaluation, randomised trials and peer review before a new drug can be licensed, for instance.
The pharmaceutical company has to weigh up the costs of research and development versus the potential profit to be made from launching a successful product that can earn a good return on their investment. (When you add in the factor that 80 per cent of their budget goes on marketing, it is clear the stakes are high indeed.)
As real food is simply real food and can’t be licensed, branded or patented, there is little impetus for the business community to fund costly research.
Medical research over the last couple of decades has, nevertheless, highlighted how an unhealthy gut could contribute to many physical diseases and these findings are becoming more accepted in mainstream medicine. Clinicians increasingly agree that the gut-brain axis also plays a crucial part in emotional well-being, including the development of conditions as diverse as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and autism.
The gut-brain axis is a way of describing the interrelationship between gut health and brain health. The various aspects of digestion are controlled via the vagus nerves by a complex set of neurons embedded in the oesophagus, stomach, intestines, colon and rectum. The brain sends messages to all the nerves in your body, including the neurons that control digestion. All works efficiently enough until a person is anxious or stressed on an ongoing basis. You perhaps know for yourself that if you are feeling nervous your stomach can feel upset and queasy. The reason for this is that strong negative emotions, stress and anxiety increase cortisol and adrenaline, which then stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and shut down the parasympathetic nervous system, which includes control of the gut.
This causes a physical chain reaction:
Reduction in pancreatic enzyme production
Reduction in gallbladder function
Reduction in the production of stomach acid
Slowing down of peristalsis – the involuntary muscle movements essential for moving food efficiently through the intestines for the absorption of nutrients
Reduction in blood flow to the intestines
Suppression of the intestinal immune system.
In the short term, this allows the body to focus its resources on ‘fight or flight’ – a good survival mechanism. However, with ongoing stress and anxiety, this cumulative slowing down and suppression of the digestive process can, over a prolonged period, lead to a condition called ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’ (SIBO).
As the digestive process is compromised by stress and anxiety, the lack of stomach acid allows the stomach and small intestine – which should both be pretty much microbe-free – to be colonised by unhealthy bacteria, and yeasts, causing foods to be fermented rather than digested. In addition to gas and bloating, compromised digestion leads to declining absorption of nutrients, which contributes to the loss of the co-factors needed for good digestion and consequently further gut problems.
Now consider this situation lasting for extended periods of time. The integrity of the gut lining may be compromised, contributing to gut permeability (‘leaky gut’) that may be sufficient to produce chronic low-grade inflammation.
The inflammatory process includes the production of cytokines, chemical signals of inflammation that are carried by the blood to the brain. The cytokines can activate cells in the brain called ‘microglia’ – the brain’s immune cells – so that the inflammation originating in the gut thereby causes widespread inflammation in the rest of the body, including in the brain.
The impact of brain inflammation is that the brain has reduced nerve conductance which – guess what – shows up as depression, anxiety and stress.
This vicious circle can self-perpetuate and requires long-term changes to heal the gut, which in turn will help to heal the brain. This is done through changes in behaviour and improving levels of nutrition through changes to food choices. To improve your natural resilience to stress it is important to increase the amount of healthy polyunsaturated omega-3 oils in your diet, so look for oily fish, grass-fed meats and butter made from the milk of grass-fed dairy herds.
If you consider yourself to be depressed, it will be helpful for your recovery to manage your stress levels, improve your sleep patterns and add nutritious and gut-healing foods into your regular eating plan. For information about all this and more see the end of this post.
Do bear in mind, however, that you may also need professional help if you have been suffering from this debilitating psychological disorder for some time. Please make sure you are accessing all the medical and psychological support you need. Try hard not to add isolation to an already challenging situation.
As we have said, the health of your digestive system is increasingly acknowledged to be the key to your potential to be physically healthy and well. You cannot be entirely well if your digestion is out of kilter. However, you may not be aware that your digestive functioning is impaired. Many factors affect your digestion that is commonplace in our busy, modern lives. They include poor quality sleep, stress and anxiety (as explained above), stimulants such as alcohol and recreational drugs, and many prescription medications, including antibiotics.
Feeling sluggish, bloated or out of sorts becomes the usual way of feeling if it goes on for long enough. Add in processed foods and fast foods that are calorie dense and nutritionally poor, and your body becomes progressively less efficient at supporting a healthy immune system and fighting infections. Perhaps you’re already beginning to recognise yourself from this brief description.
You do not need to have had a medical diagnosis of Crohn’s disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to be experiencing the symptoms of digestive disruption. How about occasional, mysterious abdominal pain or fluctuating between diarrhoea and constipation or indigestion, heartburn and flatulence? Many people live with these symptoms for decades without ever consulting a doctor. It is as if they are resigned to feeling below par, and that this is how they expect to feel.
To find out more about how to maximise the health benefits of eating real food, then check out the book Sally Baker and Liz Hogon wrote called ‘How to Feel Differently About Food’ published by Hammersmith Books. Available from Amazon.
Sally Baker is Senior Therapist, published Author and Speaker in private practice in London for face to face sessions and the world over via the internet.
With almost twenty years of professional experience, she employs cutting-edge therapeutic approaches to help one person at a time to transform their lives.
She has extensive experience working with people to alleviate their anxiety, depression, anger issues, eating disorders as well as conflicts within relationships and the family.
To find out more about Sally Baker, her books and her work visit her website, www.workingonthebody.com