Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications have truly gone mainstream in the 1990s and 2000s! Nowadays, one in 10 Americans takes an antidepressant medication; among women in their 40s and 50s, the figure is one in four. Five percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. use antidepressants, and another 6% of the same age group use medication for attention disorders like ADD or ADHD.
Since these medications are usually covered by insurance, usage tends to become long-term. Although psychiatric medications are generally considered safe, chronic use promotes dependency and they do come with adverse effects; sometimes, additional medications have to be prescribed to control the side effects, such as insomnia and agitation. Patients are often told by doctors that their symptoms are caused by a faulty biology – some chemical imbalances in the brain – and psychiatric drugs which mask the symptoms are often prescribed. However, very few doctors ever find out where the underlying causes of such chemical imbalances stem from.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Conventional medicine often views the body in distinct systems and psychological problems as independent from the rest of the body. But in actuality, our brains are inextricably tied to the gastrointestinal tract. Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach before giving a presentation or intestinal pain during times of stress? The brain has a direct effect on the gut and the connection goes both ways.
Just as the brain has neurons (nerve cells), the gut also has neurons, including neurons that produce neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) like serotonin that are responsible for controlling mood, sleep, and appetite. 90-95 percent of our serotonin is made in the gut. The neurotransmitters then travel from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve that emerges directly from the brain. Therefore, if our gut health is compromised, the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters will also be compromised. A deficiency in serotonin may cause depression, anxiety, sleep cycle disturbances, carbohydrate cravings, as well as PMS.
The vast majority of psychological complaints such as brain fog, concentration issues, anxiety disorders, depression, mood swings, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder are rooted in neurotransmitter imbalances that begin in the gut. Chronic digestive problems (including gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea), fatigue, toenail fungus, and cold hands and feet may also be indicators of gut-brain dysfunction.
How Is Your Gut Causing Brain Symptoms?
1. Infections in the gut
In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the microbes in the gut play a vital role in brain health. First, researchers found that depending on what species of bacteria dominate a person’s gut, the connections between brain regions differ, resulting in the manifestation of different behaviors. For example, when some autistic children were given probiotics (beneficial bacteria), autistic behavior disappeared or strongly ameliorated.
Second, studies found that pathogenic (bad) bacteria in the gut interact with the immune system to cause the release of inflammatory cytokines (proteins involved in cell signaling) which then travel throughout the body. When they get to the brain, inflammation serves to shunt the use of tryptophan (an amino acid that makes serotonin) toward production of anxiety-provoking chemicals rather than serotonin and melatonin (the sleep hormone).
When we have enough good bacteria in the gut, the opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms are normally kept in check. However, several factors tend to disrupt a healthy gut ecosystem:
- Taking too many rounds of antibiotics that kill the friendly bacteria
- Using birth control pills on a long-term basis
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating a diet heavy in sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Leading a highly stressed life
Infections in the gut may be viral, bacterial, parasitic, and/or fungal. The two most common type of infections are Candida yeast (fungal) overgrowth and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).
We all have some Candida yeast in the body. Yet, when the yeast becomes too numerous, it coats the lining of the intestinal tract and suppresses our ability to make serotonin. Candida yeast affects the brain and mood by producing chemicals that are neurotoxic. This is the reason why so many people with Candida overgrowth complain of brain fog, poor memory, anxiety, and depression.
Similarly, SIBO occurs when bacteria in the small intestine get out of balance and overgrow. Normally, the large intestine is full of bacteria but the small intestine should not. (SIBO can be diagnosed with the simple, non-invasive lactulose breath test.) With SIBO, the bacteria feed off carbohydrates and break them down into short-chain fatty acids, creating gas and causing bloating. Have you even eaten something and within a few hours your stomach is so bloated that you cannot even button your pants? In addition, SIBO can lead to a B12 deficiency, causing symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
2. Wrong foods causing leaky gut and inflammation in the brain
Certain foods can manifest psychological symptoms. An obvious example is coffee which exacerbates anxiety. Others may be more subtle, hence, many people are not aware of their consequences.
In this fast-paced society, most of us are eating far too much processed and packaged foods that are filled with gluten, dairy, corn, and soy. These foods may unknowingly be sabotaging your brain health.
- Wheat, rye, and barley contain a protein called gluten. Dairy contains a protein called casein. Both gluten and casein have naturally occurring opioids that act like morphine in the body. They cause a feeling of euphoria when eaten. This is why many people are actually addicted to gluten and dairy. They crave these foods and have withdrawal symptoms if they do not eat them every day.
- About 90 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. GM foods cause intestinal permeability, aka leaky gut. Large scale crops, such as corn, have been genetically engineered to contain a “natural” pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This pesticide is actually a bacteria genetically modified from the naturally occurring Bt, and placed into the DNA of the corn, where it is expressed in every part of the corn. Bt attacks the intestinal lining of bugs eating the corn, and through the after-effects of intestinal permeability, the bug eventually dies. This is the same disease pathway that gives humans leaky gut.
- Gluten, dairy, corn, and soy are very inflammatory for many people, especially those who have a food sensitivity Or intolerance towards them. They cause inflammation in the gut lining and further contributes to leaky gut. When the inflammatory cytokines travel to the brain, they bring on mood and mind disorders. Leaky gut also affects our ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients, which over time can lead to vitamin deficiencies. The most common deficiencies are omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and B vitamins, all of which are crucial for mood and brain health.
3. High-carb, low-fat diet worst for the brain
In the last few decades, the media has been touting the idea that we should be on a low-fat or close to no-fat, low-cholesterol diet to stay healthy. So we end up indulging in abundant amounts of carbohydrates and are almost void of fat and cholesterol. The problem with this diet is that it is exactly the opposite of what the brain needs. Our brains thrive when given good fats, and cholesterol is one of them, and we do not do so well with copious amounts of sugar and carbs, even if those carbs are gluten-free, whole grain, and high in fiber.
One of the ways in which carbs set off the inflammatory cascade in the brain is through surges in blood sugar. When blood sugar increases, neurotransmitters, which are the main mood and brain regulators, immediately get depleted. That means your levels of serotonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine all go down, not to mention that chronic blood sugar surges are tied to insulin resistance, leading to diabetes, and obesity.
Additionally, being diabetic doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This is why Alzheimer’s is now called type 3 diabetes. With insulin resistance, the body may not be able to break down a type of protein called amyloid that forms brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. It also provokes inflammation that can result in hardening and narrowing of the arteries in the brain. Research shows that even being “pre-diabetic”, when blood sugar issues are just beginning, is associated with a decline in brain function and shrinkage of the brain’s memory center.
As with fats, it is true that certain types are damaging to health. There is compelling scientific support that trans fats and commercially processed vegetable oils (e.g. corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower) are toxic and linked to many chronic diseases. Yet, healthy fats (like omega-3s in fish oil and monounsaturated fats in olive oil) and cholesterol (in saturated fats) are vital to brain health. The human brain is made up of more than 70 percent fat! There is ample evidence showing that eating high cholesterol foods has no impact on our actual cholesterol levels. The alleged correlation between higher cholesterol and higher cardiac risk is an absolute fallacy.
What To Do?
The key to recovering from many of the most common psychological symptoms is recognizing that most are actually rooted in the gut, not the brain. If you already suffer from digestive ailments, it is essential that you heal your gut and eat the right diet in order to bring your body back to balance and regain psychological health.
- Seek the help of a knowledgeable healthcare professional to treat leaky gut as well as gut infections like Candida or SIBO.
- At the same time, eliminate gluten, dairy, corn, and soy from your diet for at least 6 months to see if your psychological symptoms improve. At times, it takes even longer for some people to completely rid the body of the toxins.
- After removing the infections, restore your gut flora by reseeding the gut with beneficial bacteria. Use a high quality probiotic supplement.
- Substantially reduce your reliance on sugar and grain carbs.
- Increase intake of omega-3 fats by eating more mercury-free fish or use a supplement. Incorporate plenty of olive oil in the diet. Do not be afraid to eat more cholesterol-rich foods such as pasture/free range eggs, grass-fed meats, and coconut oil.
- Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink a day.
- Do not use antibiotics unless it is a serious illness.
- Consider using 5-HTP and other supplements to support the body’s production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Consult with a healthcare professional who is knowledgeable about neurotransmitter balancing regarding the appropriate dosage.
- Optimize your vitamin D level through appropriate sun exposure or supplements. If you take a supplement, you also need to take vitamin K2 as it helps to move calcium into bones and teeth instead of arteries and soft tissues. Do a blood test every year to determine if your vitamin D level is within the ideal range of 50-70 ng/ml. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression.
- Exercise regularly as it helps to normalize insulin levels while simultaneously boosting the feel good hormones (such as serotonin and endorphins) in the brain.
- Manage your stress and make sure you get sufficient sleep every night.
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