Can what you eat impact a condition like depression? Can food cause it? It’s true that we are made up of chemicals and that the chemicals we take in can impact the chemical processes of our body and even our mind. But to what extent? To what extent does our digestive tract influence our brain? And how does our mental health impact our digestive tract?
Researchers at leading health and medicine institutions like Johns Hopkins are exploring just that–how our gut impacts our mental health and vice versa. Our gut is sensitive to stress, according to Harvard Health, but if you’ve ever felt queasy because you had to deliver a public speech or take a difficult test, you probably are well aware of that.
But it’s not just stress. Emotions like sadness and anger can also impact your digestive tract. But why? According to researchers, it’s because the brain and GI tract have a direct connection.
Impact of Diet on Mental Health
Many people have heard the saying, “you are what you eat.” That’s certainly oversimplifying the case, but there is some truth in the phrase because what we eat does affect what happens inside of us, chemically speaking. Eating foods that cause inflammation, (basically the fun food that people love to eat and not your garden variety veggies), for example, can affect your gut health which can affect your mental health.
A diet that is high in refined sugars has been shown to worsen the symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. No–changing your diet cannot “cure” mental health conditions, but it may have some positive impact over time on your digestive health and your mental health. When your GI tract and brain are deprived of nutritious foods, they can become bogged down by inflammation caused by eating unhealthy foods.
But how can a daily doughnut breakfast cause inflammation? And how exactly does inflammation affect mood? When you eat a diet that’s high in refined sugars, it affects the delicate balance in your digestive system. What’s going on there is a constant battle between good bacteria and bad bacteria. Guess what the bad bacteria love to eat? That’s right–refined sugar. They love white bread, doughnuts, candy, soda pop–everything we know we should eat in moderation (or low quantities) but often don’t.
The good bacteria keep bad bacteria like inflammation-causing yeast in check. Good bacteria, you may have heard, can come from probiotics–the bacteria found in foods like Greek yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. When your good bacteria are losing the battle and bad bacteria releasing inflammation (free radicals) into the body, they also travel up to the brain where they can–and do–impact brain tissue negatively.
And that’s not all. Your good bacteria helps support serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation. 95 percent of all of your serotonin is produced where? In your gastrointestinal tract! When your good bacteria are falling down on the job, it’s not surprising that serotonin production may take a hit and you feel the effects in some way–feel sluggish, undermotivated, a bit sad.
What Are Probiotics–and Why Can’t They Cure Your Depression?
We say that gut health can impact mental health. In the context of mental illness, the gut is one factor that may or may not impact an individual’s mental health condition. Clearly, there are many people who eat cake more than they eat vegetables who are not suffering from poor mental health. There are health food aficionados who suffer from conditions like depression. So, what gives? What is the takeaway here?
First, understand that probiotics, which represent good bacteria, are not the only factor associated with mental health. That’s important to remember because many new products and supplements containing probiotics are making all sorts of claims and feature slick marketing schemes to imply that they can make you feel better. If your mental health is in the normal range, a healthy diet can certainly help you maintain good mental health.
However, if you have a mental health condition, you should know that such disorders are more complex and are not triggered or cured simply by what you eat. Healthy diet can enhance the digestive tract and mental health, but that’s only part of the equation. Some people’s bodies simply will never produce enough serotonin for effective mood regulation, for example, no matter how much yogurt they eat.
How Important Is Diet While You Are Seeking Treatment?
A good diet is always essential for maintaining your health and mental health. If you’re suffering from symptoms of a mental condition, diet is unlikely to eliminate your symptoms, but it may reduce them–over time. It often takes months to support the growth of good bacteria in your gut and to get the balance of the microflora there right. And, remember, lots of things can throw that balance off; you might catch a bad virus, for instance.
Even so, a good diet that contains the nutrition your body needs to keep supporting healthy chemical processes and reduce inflammation does support mental wellness as well as physical health. A healthy diet, physical fitness activities (which release feel-good endorphins in the brain), and treatment can all work together to improve the symptoms of a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.
What Happens When Your Brain Creates Anxiety?
Remember, the gut-mind connection works both ways. You may be eating a perfectly balanced diet, but your mind can sabotage your digestive tract. How? A person who has anxiety has a worry track that runs off the rails–regularly. A person with anxiety cannot stop worrying. That worry can trigger stress symptoms that include stomach ache, nausea, or even diarrhea. Some people actually vomit when they feel anxious or panicked. Probiotics can’t change that individual’s habits or behaviors that contribute to their automatic thought processes–not to the extent that they’re cured or feel on-demand relief.
Mental Health Disorders Require Treatment
A person with clinical anxiety or depression can benefit from a healthy diet that includes probiotics, but they can’t be cured by their diet. It would certainly simplify life if we could just eat yogurt to feel good. Mental conditions like depression and anxiety are very complex and typically require multiple treatment modalities such as therapy and medications to achieve sound condition management. Certainly, lifestyle changes like diet and exercise can make a difference and enhance the recovery process.
However, people suffering from these conditions must learn to manage them using different strategies. For instance, a therapist can help someone with anxiety identify when they are beginning to “catastrophize” and what to do when that happens. They will learn how to avoid or cope with triggers for their anxiety. Medication can actually reduce or eliminate their symptoms in time. The combination of therapy and medication works wonders for many people who have mental disorders.
Probiotics do support mind and body health. They just can’t cure a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. They can help people maintain their health and they can enhance recovery when combined with treatment for mental health disorders, but they are not a substitute for proven mental health treatments.
If you or a loved one are experiencing the symptoms of a mental health condition, don’t wait to contact FHE Health. The sooner you seek help, the sooner life can get back on track and you can start feeling better.