Belly Blues: How Gut Health Impacts Your Mood
Stress is something we all have experienced. We have all dealt with digestive issues at some point in our life, whether it be heartburn, gas, diarrhea, constipation: the list goes on. We have heard that stress can affect the digestive tract, but what about the reverse? Anyone who has ever had a stomach ache knows it can put you in a disagreeable mood. Our digestive tract is about 9 meters long (30 feet) from start to finish. Millions of nerves move the intestinal walls which communicate with the brain and control the digestive processes. This large organ is a vital piece of how we break down food and absorb nutrients, but it also plays a role in mood.
Serotonin Levels and Digestion
Scientists have found that 95% of serotonin is found in the gut. Serotonin is a chemical used for nerve cells to communicate with one another and is important in stabilizing mood. When levels of serotonin are altered, anxiety and even depression can result. Many medications used in combating anxiety and depression are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), with the common side effect of affecting the digestive tract. It is understandable that with so much of our serotonin being in our intestines, this type of medication would also alter our digestion and bowel habits. Another less commonly known fact about serotonin is its importance in helping regulate inflammation in the body. When there is something that the body deems as an injury or a ‘foreign invader’, such as bacteria, serotonin production is increased to modulate immune cell response. So, if there is a physical injury such as microtears or irritation in the intestines due to chronic constipation, or even due to an inflammatory disease such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel disease, serotonin can be altered.
Probiotics for Digestion
Probiotics are something we hear of often in this day and age. They are known to help with digestive complaints and keeping you regular, but there is another important reason for using probiotics. Research says that the surface area of our intestines amounts to 30 to 40 square meters, which is roughly the size of half a badminton court, populated by trillions of bacteria. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that help us to digest our food, process certain nutrients, and even protect us from harmful bacteria and viruses. The nerves that line our intestines are constantly interacting and communicating with this gut flora. If there is an imbalance in the bacteria, or if some bacteria, fungi or virus has made its way in, our body may be exposed to components it finds toxic or irritating. Inflammation will then occur, which can cause constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain or discomfort. Also, with unbalanced microflora, certain foods may not be digested well, leading to excess gas. All of these effects are transmitted by the nerves of the gut to the brain and can alter our mood.
How Nutrients Regulate Our Emotions
Many nutrients are required and important in regulating our emotions. Vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids are vital in making hormones for the brain such as dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine. These hormones are the components that impact how we feel and balance our emotional state. Absorption of all these nutrients in the gut can be affected by the levels of probiotics and other bacteria, food combinations, medications you’re currently taking, food sensitivities, or even by your genetics. Deficiency in any of these nutrients can interfere with the appropriate production of these hormones which can create unnecessary feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, when the body is already feeling stressed it makes it more difficult to respond to everyday situations in a healthy manner, further taxing the nervous system and your digestive tract. It is important to address whether there is poor absorption and why, in order to correct the issue and bring things back to balance.
Testing for Deficiencies
Many of these issues mentioned above can be tested for and addressed with a Naturopathic doctor. Some of the tests include, testing for vitamin and nutrient deficiency, stool analysis, food sensitivity panel, and even gene mapping. Once the problems are identified, there are many tools, such as food combining and nutritional education, supplementation, colonic hydrotherapy, and acupuncture that can help heal the gut and optimize your health and wellness.
Digestive health is multifaceted and has a huge impact on our emotional well-being. When our digestion is off we don’t feel well, both emotionally and physically. Not only does our capacity for dealing with stress decrease, but our feelings of anxiety and depression increase. Chronically, this can alter how our brain perceives not only emotional stressors, but physical stressors as well. Optimal wellness includes good vitamin status, gut function, and hormone balance. With our current understanding of the connections between these systems we can accomplish mental-emotional and physical health with a unified approach.
Dr. Stephanie Mallory, N.D. is the current Colon Hydrotherapist at the Center for Natural Medicine in Watertown, CT. Dr. Mallory graduated from the University of Bridgeport with her Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine and is currently finishing a dual masters in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology. For more information please call 860-945-1004 or visit our website: centerfornaturalmedicine.net.