What Your Gut is Telling You
How Poor Gut Health Contributes to Anxiety and Depression
By Dr. Karen Bender
How is your digestion?
Do you experience pain and indigestion after eating foods you once enjoyed? Have you started to accept gas and bloating as normal? Do you often go days without having a bowel movement? These are all signs that your digestive system is not functioning like it should.
You might think that while these symptoms are uncomfortable and inconvenient, they are not too concerning. After all, it seems like most people you talk to about this also experience at least some of the same symptoms. Unfortunately, symptoms of a poorly functioning digestive system can be affecting your health in many significant ways.
How poor gut health contributes to anxiety and depression
When symptoms like gas and bloating, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and heartburn are chronic and left untreated, they can lead to chronic inflammation and immune dysfunction, nutritional deficiencies, hormone, and neurotransmitter imbalances. While these imbalances can affect many systems in the body, I am going to focus on how they can contribute to the development and worsening of anxiety and depression.
Inflammation in the digestive tract can be caused by a variety of triggers, including food sensitivities and infections from bacteria, viruses, or parasites. If left untreated, inflammation in the gut can contribute to overall inflammation in the body. While depression is not an inflammatory disease per se, there are many studies indicating that inflammation plays a significant role in the disease. Gut inflammation can be treated by identifying and eliminating trigger foods and by treating infections.
If the digestive system is inflamed or is not producing adequate digestive enzymes and stomach acid, its ability to break down and absorb nutrients becomes impaired. For example, if the body is unable to properly absorb the B vitamins vital to neurotransmitter synthesis, neurotransmitter production is impaired. This can contribute to mood alterations as well as impact overall brain function, memory, and cognition.
Another nutrient that is commonly deficient when the diet is poor, and the digestive system is not functioning properly is magnesium. It is a cofactor for more than 300 enzymes in the body, so a deficiency can affect many body systems. Common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include muscle cramps, constipation, poor sleep, and impaired cognitive function. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to anxiety disorders and depression in several clinical studies.
The omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) play an important role in overall brain function. Inadequate intake in the diet and/or poor absorption from the digestive tract due to inadequate digestive enzymes or inflammation in the gut can lead to deficiencies. Studies have shown that both anxiety and depression symptoms improve when appropriate levels of these omega 3 fatty acids are maintained.
How gut bacteria affect hormone balance
An important part of the digestive system is the microbiome. This is the healthy bacteria that live in the colon. These bacteria serve many functions in the body. Their role in estrogen metabolism can have a significant impact on health. Some of the bacteria in the microbiome contain the enzyme beta-glucuronidase. This enzyme is responsible for the deconjugation of estrogens so that they are reabsorbed into blood circulation rather than excreted as waste. If there is an imbalance in the microbiome in which there is too much deconjugation happening, then a state of estrogen dominance can occur. In addition to contributing to the development of irregular and heavy menses, infertility, fibroids, endometriosis, and fibrocystic breasts in women, excess estrogen can also contribute to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and low libido. Having a healthy balanced microbiome is essential for maintaining a balance of hormones that is supportive of mental wellbeing.
The gut-brain connection
Did you know that gut bacteria produce 95 percent of the body’s serotonin? This important neurotransmitter is known for its role in promoting a sense of wellbeing and happiness–and it is also involved in the motility of the gut. Gut bacteria also produce the neurochemicals GABA, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine, and melatonin. These neurochemicals affect gut functioning as well as the brain’s ability to regulate mood and cognition. Unbalanced gut bacteria can affect mood and contribute to anxiety and depression.
The brain and the gut are interconnected. Just as gut bacteria affect the brain, the brain can also exert profound influences on the gut microbiome. Numerous studies have shown that psychological stress suppresses beneficial gut bacteria. When the microbiome is unhealthy, its ability to produce neurochemicals needed for mood regulation and overall brain functioning are in turn affected. This connection is why it is important to not ignore the symptoms of poor gut health when it comes to your mental wellbeing.
What can be done
The best way to optimize your gut health is to first evaluate how well it is functioning. Fortunately, there are detailed and accurate tests that can be done to do just that. Even if you feel like your digestion is fairly good, a stool test can help uncover unknown infections, evaluate gut bacteria health status, enzyme function, markers of inflammation and poor absorption–even measure the level of beta glucuronidase enzyme that could be affecting your estrogen levels.
To learn more about what your gut is telling you and how it could be affecting your mental health, make an appointment with Dr. Karen Bender.