The link between your gut health and depression

Depression is not all in your head. It might, in fact, be linked to your gut health! But how does that work?
gut health tummy stomach

Again and again we hear about depression being caused by an imbalance of your brain chemicals. Antidepressants aim to target this, but they don’t actually work for many. More and more researchers are now linking depression to chronic inflammation, and that can have its root in your gut health. Read on to find out more.

Ever heard about gut bacteria?

Did you know that you’ve got more bacteria inside your body than organs and cells? Apparently there are 79 organs, around 30 trillion cells and 40 trillion bacteria. I’m not sure how to even imagine a number this big, but big it certainly is.

Bacteria have always had a bit of a bad reputation as being disease-causing germs. But did you know that without bacteria you’d struggle to survive and thrive? You need them for so many of your body’s processes. Your immune system, digestion, hormonal health and yes, your mental health!


Takeaway points

There are lots of different types of bacteria and most of them reside inside your gut. Some are certainly disease-causing bacteria, but there are also many, many types that promote your health. The good ones keep the “bad” ones in check. As is often the case: It’s all about the right balance.

Unfortunately, our typical modern lifestyles can really change our bacteria population. Think about processed and low-nutrient foods, lack of movement, chronic stress and poor sleep and for some frequent use of certain over-the-counter medication. It can allow the “bad” guys to take hold over the “good” ones, and that can cause of sorts of problems. 

When the harmful bacteria take charge, your body can struggle to digest foods properly and to absorb their nutrients. Reminder: food goes from your stomach into the small intestine, and this is where you digest your food further and absorb your nutrients. And very importantly, an imbalance in your gut bacteria can mean that the lining of your small intestine might not be as strong and healthy as we’d like it to be.

This gut lining plays crucial part to your health!

The power of your gut health

A healthy gut lining protects you and acts as a barrier between your gut and the rest of your body. Think about it, you can put all sorts of things into your mouth and eat them, but it doesn’t truly enter your body until the nutrients get absorbed from your intestine into your bloodstream. 

So the gut lining makes sure that only those things that are supposed to leave your digestive tract can indeed do that and move to other parts of your body. It’s very clever!

But if the intestinal lining becomes damaged, you can experience something called leaky gut. And that’s not so good.

When your gut is leaky, things like toxins and large food particles (that your digestive tract struggled to break down properly) can end up in your bloodstream and travel throughout your body. Problem: you don’t want them there! 

Your immune system then detects these invaders as harmful and starts to attack them. In short, your body’s alarm bells are ringing. And with a leaky gut, this is constant and can lead to chronic inflammation. 

Why your depression may be caused by chronic inflammation

Researchers are now linking depression to chronic inflammation inside your body. 

But what’s inflammation again? 

Well, if you cut your finger then you might experience redness, swelling, pain and heat. That’s called acute inflammation and your body reacts in this way to help protect you and your cut from harmful bacteria in your environment. Again, this is your body being very clever.

But the type of inflammation that’s now being linked to depression is different: We’re now talking about chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a consistent and long-term. It happens when your body is under constant attack and doesn’t have the time and chance to fully recover. 

And again, one reason why you might be experiencing chronic inflammation is due to a leaky gut. And leaky gut in turn means that your intestinal lining is not in good shape. It can become damaged when we experience chronic stress, gut infections, take certain medications for a long time or eat too many inflammatory foods for too long. 

To treat depression, treat the inflammation

There are now actually drug trials running whereby depressed people are given anti-inflammatory drugs to see if this approach can treat depression. So not using antidepressants but instead choosing anti-inflammatory drugs normally used to treat things like arthritis. 

Interestingly, there was a study done on healthy individuals, in which they were given (pro) inflammatory molecules and they found that these people then developed depressive symptoms. So give somebody a drug that triggers inflammation and they can end up feeling depressed!

So of course there’s now a lot of research going into the use of anti-inflammatory drugs to treat depression. And perhaps this will help many depression sufferers in the future.

But from a natural perspective, you would look at what’s been causing the chronic level of inflammation in the first place. And that’s where a holistic approach can be so helpful for people, because it’s often a combination of things that lead to chronic inflammation. You would, for example, want to look at your diet, your stress levels, chemicals in your environment, and medication (always with your GP). You can take natural remedies to help heal the lining in your gut, such as certain nutrients and foods. Beneficial bacteria taken at the right time can make an enourmous difference, too. And then there are also supplements that help lower the amount of the “bad” guys.

So the take away from this post: How you feel mentally may actually have a lot to do with the health of your body, and in this case your gut in particular. And what’s more, you can do so much to recover from depression if you suspect that it may be down to inflammation – and that’s quite possibly the case for many! 

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

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