Depression and gut health

By Sylva Sheridan

Depression. anxiety. post-traumatic stress disorder. bi-polar disorder. anorexia nervosa. bulimia – each of these present some of the most current and common mental health concerns that affect many people. In their book, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Naturopathic Doctors Michael T. Murray and Joseph Pizzorno lay out eight primary criteria when assessing mental health concerns: poor appetite or increased appetite resulting in weight loss and gain; insomnia or excessive sleeping habits; physical hyperactivity or inactivity; loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities or decrease in sexual drive; loss of energy accompanied by fatigue; feelings of worthlessness; diminished ability to think or concentrate; and recurrent thoughts of death.
One of the most talked about current studies involves the relationship between the gut microbiome and mental health. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, ‘by optimizing your gut health and levels of inflammation with probiotics, fermented foods, vitamin D and omega 3 fats, you may be able to relieve symptoms of depression and other neurological diseases’.
Dr. Mercola is a strong advocate of fermented foods for optimal digestive health, provided the foods remain in the natural form and are not pasteurized. The pasteurization process kills the naturally occurring probiotics founds in fermented foods. This includes kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Dr. Mercola remains a tremendous advocate of addressing inflammation from a digestive perspective. He also advocates reducing sugar intake. He states ‘it is worth noting that sugar can lead to excessive insulin relates that can lead to hypoglycemia, which, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety and panic attacks.’ This would include avoiding alcohol, caffeine and processed foods.
From a nutritional perspective, it would be beneficial to increase your dietary fibre. This includes plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, brown rice, millet and legumes. Just as a diet too low in dietary fibre can cause a sluggish digestive tract, as well as an influx of bad bacteria, a diet too low in complex carbohydrates can cause serotonin depletion and depression. The body is a remarkable organism. There are neurons that coat the lining of the intestinal tract. This is known as the enteric nervous system. Research is showing that the enteric nervous system also relays and sends neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA, responds to emotions, and has a direct conduit to the brain via the vagus nerve.
One of the central supplements that is commonly recommended to support the gut-brain connection are probiotics. Probiotics are the ‘good guys.’ They help re-colonize and rebuild the digestive tract with an influx of good bacteria. There are many strains, which can present some challenges. However, there is one strain that is quickly gaining the attention of those interested in combating the effects of depression and anxiety. Bifidobacterium longum is one of hundreds of bacterial species that live in the gut. Many live there symbiotically, gaining energy from substances absorbed in the intestine. Bifidobacterium logum releases substances that activate the vagus nerve, which connects the gut to the brain. Alternatively, the chemicals they release may leach into the blood supply and reach the brain that way.
Support your gut health in the following ways: limit dairy and refined sugar; omit wheat products from the diet. Wheat gluten has been linked to depressive disorders in those who do not tolerate gluten proteins; avoid diet sodas; avoid alcohol and caffeine; avoid foods high in saturated fats; increase your consumption of dietary fibre through vegetables and fruit; increase your consumption and foods such as turkey (high in tryptophan) and wild-caught salmon (high in essential fatty acids); have a hair analysis done to rule out heavy metal toxicity; keep your mind active, and get plenty of rest and regular exercise and mindful mediation to allow your brain to develop some new positive pathways.
Sylva Sheridan, CNP, is a graduate of the Institute of Holistic Nutrition (IHN) and the Administrative Coordinator, Program Advisor, & Student Clinic Coordinator of the IHN Ottawa Campus.