What if the key to improving our mental health was actually linked to something that has nothing to do with what’s going on inside our HEADS? Today, we’re taking a deep dive into the gut-brain connection and the eye-opening connection between gut health and mental health.
Depression and anxiety are a big deal and something that affects more of us than we probably even realize. In fact, it’s estimated that over 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression alone.
If you’ve ever struggled with either some form of depression or anxiety, or both, or even if you just know someone who has, THIS post is for you.
I’m a forty-something woman who knows EXACTLY what it’s like to struggle with losing weight and getting healthy, as well as what it means to struggle with depression. So this topic is definitely one that hits very close to home.
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The Gut-Brain Connection is One You Need to Know About
But today, I want to talk specifically about a topic that I think we don’t always attribute to PHYSICAL health (even though there is a huge amount of research showing just how connected it is).
That is this issue of MENTAL health.
Specifically, the depression and anxiety that affects SO many of us in our day-to-day lives, sometimes to the point where it is hard to function and equally as hard to even find the motivation to focus on our physical health.
Because it really is all connected.
One of the biggest players in this whole equation is something known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. It’s a real thing, and it can have a devastating effect on both our physical and, more importantly, our mental health.
Let’s just take some time to really understand what Leaky Gut Syndrome is, and why it can be so detrimental to our health. Then we’ll talk about how we can actually HEAL our gut naturally and fix our body as a WHOLE (rather than just trying to mask the symptoms with traditional medicine).
My Own Experience with Depression
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of leaky gut and how it connects to mental health, I just want to say that depression and anxiety are definitely something I am intimately familiar with in my own life.
Some of you already know me from some of my other brands and books or possibly even from my podcasts, so you’ve maybe heard me share my story at some point.
But for those of you who are new, let me just preface everything we’re going to talk about today with a tiny bit of background, just for some context of why this topic hits so close to home.
The nutshell version of my story is that when I was in my early twenties and a senior in college, I went through a devastating period of depression that literally almost killed me.
I attempted suicide multiple times and came very, very close to succeeding—so close that my heart stopped. I had to be resuscitated in the ambulance, and I was put on life support. And I was given less than a 10 percent chance of ever waking up or not being brain-damaged.
Just the fact that I’m still here is literally a miracle.
But it wasn’t just a one-time thing. I spent two and a half years in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Even after that, it took me years to fully recover and get any semblance of normal life back since I had basically blown it all up: burned bridges with friends and family, filed for bankruptcy, dropped out of college, and gotten divorced.
To say it was a bad time in my life feels so woefully inadequate that I can’t even really describe just how dark and hopeless that time was for me.
The Other Side of Depression
If you’ve ever gone through something like this, or you’re going through it now, it might even feel strange to hear me talk about it so casually. Let me also say this—it has been more than 20 years since all of this happened.
I’ve been in a good place for a long time. I’ve also had a LOT of therapy, and that makes it a whole lot easier to talk about.
I do think it’s so important to talk about what the OTHER side of depression looks like.
Having been there, I know how hopeless it can feel. It’s hard to believe that you could ever feel anything different than the darkness and despair that hovers over you like a cloud.
I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. Okay? If you’re in that place, let me hold that hope for you right now.
Now you know why this topic hits so close to home for me and why I care so much.
But in my more recent work over the past few years, I’ve come to understand SO much about overall health and specifically GUT health, and just how connected our PHYSICAL health is to our MENTAL health and well-being.
It’s honestly shocking to me, when I look back on all the time I spent in hospitals and all the medication I was placed on, that this never came up. The gut-brain connection was never even mentioned.
Maybe the doctors didn’t know. Or maybe we’ve just become such a pharmaceutical-driven society that we automatically just turn to pills to mask the symptoms without ever looking at the root cause or the underlying health issues that could be contributing to the problem.
The Underlying Issue: Leaky Gut Syndrome
And in many, many, MANY people, the primary underlying health issue that’s making everything worse is something called Leaky Gut Syndrome.
In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of the current population could have some sort of issue with leaky gut and probably don’t even realize it.
What is leaky gut syndrome?
So let’s start by talking about WHAT Leaky Gut Syndrome actually is because once we understand that, then the connection between mental health and the gut becomes a whole lot clearer.
Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS for short) is a digestive disorder that is characterized by an abnormal amount of permeability in the cells lining the small intestine.
This means that gaps appear between the cells, and these gaps are much larger than they should be. In some cases, up to 70 times larger.
Put more simply, it means you’ve literally got tiny holes in your intestines that allow what’s passing through to leak out into the rest of your body instead of staying where it should.
And that’s where the real problems start.
Why a Leaky Gut is a (Really) Bad Thing
As you can imagine, those gaps causes toxins, bacteria, undigested food particles, and other substances to pass through the gut wall and escape into the bloodstream.
When your body is constantly being bombarded with things it doesn’t recognize as friendly, that’s when a whole host of issues start to arise.
In fact, leaky gut has been linked to almost every autoimmune disorder you can think of: Crohn’s, IBS, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
It’s only recently that doctors and scientists have started to look at the potential impact this could have on mental health as well. But let me tell you this: the results are pretty remarkable, and the evidence is piling up.
While it might still be too early to make any definitive declarations about how leaky gut causes depression, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is some sort of connection.
Symptoms of Leaky Gut Syndrome
How do you know whether Leaky Gut Syndrome might actually be an issue for you? Well, chances are, if leaky gut is an issue, you’re experiencing more symptoms than just depression and anxiety, even though you may not have realized they could all be connected.
Common symptoms include:
- chronic fatigue – basically just feeling tired and worn out all the time and having no energy to even get through your day.
- digestive issues – everything from diarrhea to feeling totally bloated after you eat to struggling with constipation.
- pain – such as chronic joint pain or headaches.
- skin issues – eczema, psoriasis, or even strange rashes and hives.
- recurring infections – yeast infections or UTIs.
- food allergies or sensitivities – or maybe you notice that you just can’t eat certain things, even though you used to be able to.
- autoimmune disorders – if you’ve been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, it’s worth looking into the possibility that leaky gut is at the root of your issues.
- inflammation – leaky gut causes a huge amount of inflammation in the body, which in turn contributes to even more symptoms like mental fog, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating, all of which can be extremely debilitating.
And if you’ve ALSO been struggling with depression or anxiety, then maybe you blamed the fatigue or the brain fog on the depression when the real underlying issue is happening in your gut, not your head.
We’ve almost gotten to a point in society where we normalize that kind of stuff because it’s SO common, and yet in a healthy system, NONE of that is normal.
Leaky Gut and the Gut-Brain Connection
So, how does a leaky gut connect to mental health?
Well, believe it or not, there is actually a direct link between your gut and your brain that’s called the gut-brain axis. This is basically a two-way communication between the central nervous system that includes your spinal cord and brain and your gastrointestinal tract’s central nervous system.
This gut-brain connection means that activities in your brain and gut can have a big influence on one another. It’s why smelling something delicious cooking can make your stomach rumble and why even seeing a photo of your favorite food can make you feel hungry.
On the flip side, when something is OFF with your gut and your microbiome, it can affect your brain in a lot of different ways.
For starters, when toxins and bacteria start leaking out of your gut into the bloodstream, it can trigger an immune response. This, in turn, causes inflammation throughout the body, including in your brain.
Researchers now know that inflammation is directly correlated with mental issues because studies have shown that levels of inflammation are significantly higher in people with depression or anxiety.
The Gut and Hormone Disruption
Another way a leaky gut can affect mental health is by disrupting hormone balance in your body. This is because the gut-brain axis actually affects hormones like serotonin, cortisol, and adrenaline.
If your gut isn’t functioning properly, it can throw off all sorts of hormones in your body and play a role in depression and anxiety.
Serotonin, as you’ve probably heard, is the “happy hormone.” It’s the hormone that regulates your mood and helps you feel happy. But if your gut isn’t functioning correctly, then it can’t produce enough serotonin to keep your mood in balance…and that’s a big deal.
But it gets worse.
Leaky gut has also been linked to an increase in neurotoxins, which are toxins that damage nerve cells in the brain. Basically, these toxins trigger inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which change the production and transmission of neurotransmitters responsible for your mood, which can then lead to cognitive problems and even changes in behavior.
Finally, leaky gut can also lead to vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin B12, for example, which is essential for brain function and mental health, needs to be absorbed in the gut. But if your gut isn’t functioning properly, then it can’t absorb B12 and other essential nutrients, which again can directly contribute to depression and anxiety.
Healing Your Gut and the Gut-Brain Connection
Of course, the question is: if all this is true, what can you actually do about it?
How do you actually start healing your gut and restoring both your mental and physical health?
The good news: the solution is actually pretty simple.
It’s all about making sure you have a healthy gut microbiome and that you’re taking the necessary steps to heal your body and your gut from the inside out.
Changing the Way You Eat
The first and most obvious solution is to change the way you eat.
The Standard American Diet is loaded with foods that HARM your gut and are incredibly inflammatory. This includes highly processed sugars, flours, seed oils, and artificial flavors and colors.
It makes sense that you’d need to take a step back and start looking at the foods you’re putting into your body every day.
Cut Out Inflammatory Foods
The first step is to cut out as many of those processed, packaged, inflammatory foods as possible.
This doesn’t have to be a huge, all-or-nothing change.
You can start by just eliminating the worst offenders in your diet such as:
- energy drinks
- sugary snacks and sweets
- processed meats and cheeses
- white bread and pasta
Adapt a Low-Carb Lifestyle
If you want to go further with changing the way you eat for optimum gut health, there’s no better way to do that than adopting a low-carb lifestyle. Here’s why:
Sugar and starches literally FEED all that bad bacteria in your gut. So if you want to get rid of those bad bugs and replace them with good ones, then cutting back on carbohydrates is SO important.
It’s not just carbohydrates you’ll want to worry about. A lot of foods contain something called lectins, which are proteins found in a variety of plant foods like legumes, grains, and nightshade veggies.
Lectins can be highly inflammatory to the gut lining and cause leaky gut as well.
Cutting out carbohydrates will help a lot since many high-lectin foods are also high in carbs, but there are certain low-carb foods, like nightshades, that you’ll also want to be careful with.
The good news is there are SO many delicious low carb foods and recipes out there. Check out our low-carb recipes here to get started!
Add in Gut-Friendly Foods
While you’re eliminating some of the BAD stuff from your diet, there are some other gut-friendly foods that you’ll want to be sure to start adding in.
Fermented foods, like fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, natural high-fat, low-carb yogurt, and kefir, all of which are rich in probiotics, are absolutely amazing for your gut.
You’ll also want to make sure you are eating lots of HEALTHY non-processed fats, like the kind you find in avocados and salmon and coconut oil, and animal products. This will help reduce inflammation and regulate your hormones.
Supplements and Probiotics
What if you want to do even more beyond just making dietary changes?
Well, in addition to changing the way you eat, there are a few other things you can do to help heal your gut and protect your mental health.
- The first is adding in certain supplements like zinc, glutamine, and omega-3 fatty acids. These can all help reduce inflammation and help heal your gut lining.
- You may also want to consider taking an organ powder supplement, such as beef liver capsules, which I know sounds kinda gross but is really not bad.
- And then, of course, there are probiotics, which help to restore the balance of bacteria in your gut and are essential for healing leaky gut and restoring mental health. Look for a high-quality probiotic that contains at least 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per serving, and make sure it contains multiple strains of bacteria, and not just one. A lot of people ask me which brand I recommend, and my honest answer is that I actually like to switch it up frequently because when it comes to healthy bacteria, diversity is a really good thing.
- You may also want to consider taking something called PREbiotics, which are fibers that support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut.
- Finally, there are certain herbs and spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, oregano, and thyme that all have anti-inflammatory properties.
Avoid Unnecessary Medications
The other big piece, when it comes to healing and protecting your gut, is to avoid all unnecessary medications as much as possible.
Prescription antibiotics are notorious for killing off all the good bacteria in your gut. While they can be necessary at times, you always want to do everything you can to minimize their use.
The same goes for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen and aspirin, which have been linked to increasing leaky gut. If you need to take them, then of course, do so, but just be aware of the risks and try to avoid them whenever possible.
Choose Natural Remedies When Possible
At this point, it won’t shock you to know that I’m a big believer in essential oils and natural remedies.
Yes, it probably makes me some sort of woo-woo hippie-dippie freak (I mean, I did have a home birth!). I just so strongly believe in the ability of our bodies to heal themselves when we nourish them with the right things.
Now that I’ve seen the research and actually KNOW what these over-the-counter medicines that we all just take for granted are actually doing to our bodies, I think a lot of times they do more long-term damage for the sake of a quick fix at the moment.
Final Thoughts on Gut Health and Mental Health
For the sake of time, I’ll spare you any additional rants, but the bottom line for me is that your gut health matters SO much—probably so much more than you even realize.
In case you can’t tell, this is a topic I’m incredibly passionate about. I openly say I’m obsessed with gut health (and you should be too!)
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or with brain fog and low energy, or you just don’t FEEL good a lot of the time, then the gut-brain connection is worth looking into.
I’m not saying that depression and other mental health issues aren’t real things that don’t sometimes need to be addressed with medication and/or therapy. And I’m also not saying that a leaky gut and the gut-brain connection is the ONLY factor that contributes to depression or anxiety.
Obviously, there are many factors at play.
In my own case, I was dealing with a diagnosis of PTSD in addition to depression. It wasn’t until I actually dealt with that PTSD and my childhood trauma with lots of therapy that I was able to heal and move on.
The Body and the Gut-Brain Connection: One Wonderful and Complex System
What I am saying is that today all too often, medication only treats the symptoms, not the root cause.
Our bodies are NOT a collection of independent parts and unrelated symptoms – it’s ONE beautifully complex system that all works together, as demonstrated by the gut-brain connection.
If your own doctor doesn’t seem to understand that, then I encourage you to find a new one. Look for someone who specializes in what’s called functional medicine, which approaches the body from a holistic approach and works to get to the root causes.
Be wary and skeptical of any doctor who spends 5 minutes barely listening to your complaints and then whips out their prescription pad.
Do your own research. Change the way you nourish your body.
I promise your brain will thank you.
If this post about the gut-brain connection was helpful to you, or if it made you think about someone you know, PLEASE feel free to share it! Send a text with the link, post it on social, or send an email.
Help me get the word out because I really do feel so passionate that everyone needs to know about gut health and how it can affect you.
Plus, if you loved this post, you’ll really love the podcast on this exact topic. Listen to the Ditch the Carbs podcast here!
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