"Most days are just full-blown blah," 34-year-old Michael told his doctor during an initial consultation. "Even life’s simple pleasures no longer make me happy. The other day I watched an amazing impersonator at Washington Square Park and… Usually, that sort of thing makes me smile. But…nothing. That’s how I knew I was unhappy."
While Michael’s former physician wanted to put him on an antidepressant, he insisted he wasn’t actually depressed but rather in a miserable, seemingly never-ending funk.
Whether you feel anxiety, depression, or just that all-too-common blah feeling, mood disorders often start in the gut. In this case, the gut-brain connection becomes more important than you might think.
Whereas doctors may brush off Michael’s symptoms as something to medicate away, there’s another way to look at this if you think of the gut. Even a slightly off-kilter mood can affect work performance, relationships, and just about everything else in life.
Instead of starting with brain health, the evolving new paradigm of functional medicine says start with your gut.
Let’s back up here. Michael’s former doctor had him on antibiotics for a minor infection. Along with a high-sugar processed diet, he owned a house in upstate New York that happened to be near an apple orchard. He was on two medications for high blood pressure. And his labs showed incredibly high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation.
Those factors did a serious whammy to his gut health, triggering dysbiosis. That’s a fancy word for describing a gut flora imbalance, whereby unfriendly bacteria and/or yeast that produce neurotoxins take hold of your gut. As a result, they slow your ability to think, trigger depression, and affect your memory retention.
In fact, antibiotics are the biggest culprit for dysbiosis, but other things like chronic stress and environmental stressors (e.g., pesticides) also contribute. For Michael, those conditions led to leaky gut, which further affected numerous symptoms including brain fog and that blah feeling.
To understand why a gut imbalance (like dysbiosis) triggers problems like leaky gut and affects your mood, remember your gut’s inner lining is very thin, only one cell-layer thick, in fact. When that layer becomes compromised by stress and antibiotics, inflammation rapidly spreads from your gut through the rest of your body. Basically, a gut on fire is a brain on fire. Brain inflammation then leads to what people feel as depression.
For Michael, that meant he wasn’t digesting or absorbing the paltry amount of nutrients from his poor diet. Toxins, foreign material, infectious organisms, and partially digested food particles leaked into his bloodstream and traveled to the barrier between the brain’s special circulation and the rest of your body.
We call that barrier your blood-brain barrier (BBB). When you have a "leaky" gut, you also have a leaky brain. In other words, inflammation in your gut triggers inflammation in your brain.
Michael was also low in serotonin, a "happy mood" neurotransmitter. Your gut’s microbiome produces more serotonin than your brain, and about 95 percent of serotonin receptors are found in the gut itself. Along with about 30 other neurotransmitters, you can begin to see how your gut becomes central to feeling happy.
In order for Michael to fix his funk, he had to fix his gut.
When you balance your gut with the right proportions of healthy "probiotic" bacteria, you create a happy brain as well. Disturb that balance and allow the wrong bacteria and yeast to take over, and guess where their inflammatory metabolites and signals reach? Yep, they cross the BBB, stunning the brain and creating behavioral and emotional problems. With the bugs producing these toxins, your brain simply can’t function.
Throw in your immune system’s response (about 70 percent of your immune system lies in your gut), which includes the secretion of all sorts of inflammatory signals that also affect your brain, and you become chronically inflamed, leading to depression, erratic behavior, and even memory problems. High stress alone will affect your ability to retain memories.
Simply put, you cannot work effectively on your brain health if you don’t create an environment that reduces brain inflammation. Your brain functions best when its signals are not jammed by toxins, food allergens, dysbiosis, nutritional deficiencies, and stress.
To fix your brain and feel better, you have to start with the gut. These seven gut-focused strategies can benefit nearly every person who struggles with mood disorders:
1. Reduce your toxic load.
We’re inundated with about 80,000 chemicals, and chief among them are often the artificial substances, fillers, food dyes, processed foods, and sweeteners you eat on a daily basis that are causing a toxic buildup in your body. Michael became aware of these, like the artificial sweeteners he sprinkled into his morning dark roast. Switching to a whole food, unprocessed diet did wonders alone for his gut and his mood.
2. Lower inflammation.
Gut-associated inflammation manifests differently in each person. For Michael, it meant migraines but also mood disorders. For other patients, it includes asthma, allergies, or autoimmune diseases. To lower inflammation, diet is the place to begin. Most Americans eat about 20 times more inflammatory omega-6s than anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Shift that balance with more nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory organic produce, wild-caught fish, freshly ground flaxseed, and a quality fish-oil supplement.
3. Nix the sweet stuff.
Eating high-sugar or sugar-equivalent foods feeds the yeast, leading to the production of neurotoxins that cause fatigue, mental fog, mood swings, headaches, problems with memory retention, poor concentration, inability to focus, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. You know the obvious culprits, but even "healthy" foods like agave-sweetened cookies can add to your sugar load.
4. Eat the right foods.
Healing mood disorders starts at the end of your fork, not a prescription. Your gut is the foundation for greater mind-body happiness. Feed it correctly with plenty of fiber-loaded plant foods, healthy fats (like walnuts, avocados, and olive oil), and some protein (particularly omega-3-rich fish). And throw in fermented and cultured foods rich in probiotics, like kimchi and sauerkraut.
5. Decrease stress.
Chronic stress takes a massive toll on your happiness, but it also messes with your gut. Michael found a 60-minute Vinyasa flow yoga class twice weekly lowered his stress levels and became an essential part of his healing journey. Other powerful tools at your disposal to dial down stress levels include deep breathing, meditation, and the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
6. Sleep deeply.
Studies show bad sleep whacks your immune system, ramps up inflammation, and does a number on your gut. Michael learned to turn off electronics about an hour before bed and read paper books instead. He found his mood almost instantly improved with eight hours of solid, uninterrupted nightly sleep.
7. Heal your gut with the right nutrients.
These include the gut-healing amino acid L-glutamine, the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), and a probiotic supplement. Probiotics—our little helpers—compete against bad bugs, one of many ways they protect us from harmful pathogens.