Anxiety & Depression: In your head, or in your gut?
Dec 4, 2015 @ 2:14 EDT
By Natacha Moussi
It’s hard to understand mental disorders or illnesses until you’ve experienced any of them. Many people who’ve never experienced it first hand, including myself before I had, view it simply as a psychological problem or a chemical imbalance in the brain that’s too complex to understand. Anxiety, depression, bi-polar syndrome, attention-deficit disorder… whichever one is the case, we think of the mind, and no other part of the body.
It’s time to think differently. My own experience with anxiety allowed me to open my mind, and look to a place where I now believe most of human disease begins: our guts.
During the holidays leading to 2015, I spent my days at home. I didn’t go out at all, and I skipped family gatherings. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing anxiety. From the research I’d done, it seemed like it was Generalized Anxiety Disorder, since it was constant and lasted just over 3 months.
The symptoms were worse at first. Other than anxiety (the never ending fight-or-flight feeling, accelerated heart rate and excessive sweating), I experienced insomnia, going for several nights in a row without sleep, then when I could sleep I would get panic attacks which woke me up feeling like I was having a heart attack. There was constant mind-chatter and I was suddenly afraid of the dark. I had crying spells, and along came feelings of depression, actually feeling like my life didn’t mean much anymore.
Digestive issues also troubled me, from heart-burn (again, first time ever), to irritable bowel syndrome. I lost 10lbs during the first 3 weeks, and my muscles felt absolutely weak. To top it all off, my period disappeared for 3 cycles.
The predominant symptom, though, was the anxiety. It took me a long time to accept I even had it. The thought of having a mental problem was way too foreign to me. Why me?! I’m always so positive, optimistic and hopeful. What the heck was causing this chaos? Luckily, my problem-solving mind would not take it, and went straight to work.
First, I dealt with what could’ve been the psychological issue at the root of it. When I would cry, I kept thinking about reaching out to one family member in particular. Now this person and I had absolutely no issues between us, but for some unknown reason, I needed to feel their support. My mother arranged for us to get together, and it helped. The crying actually ended after that meeting. Although all of the other symptoms ensued regardless, I feel like that was the first step to dealing with the mess.
During the following 3 months, I tackled one symptom at a time, but I had to switch my strategy. At first, I thought I could handle these problems by psycho-analyzing myself, talking to people, meditating and doing cranio-sacral therapy, maybe eventually seeing a psychiatrist. But by pure chance one day, my father prepared some old-fashioned, homemade chicken soup. It was all I had eaten that day, and for the first time in weeks, the anxiety went away and I slept like a baby. I kept eating the soup for a few days to be safe, and I was able to keep the anxiety at bay, slowly starting to feel normal again. A few days past, and I tried eating other foods, going out for dinner with some close friends. But the anxiety came right back.
It was too much, too soon I guess. I had to get back on the soup diet. I wasn’t able to get rid of the anxiety completely, but it definitely helped. I could slowly start going out again, as the anxiety was becoming tolerable. That’s when it clicked: I was capable of managing what seemed to be mental issues with food. Which meant, something must had been going on in my digestive system. My investigative nature started digging for research on a connection between food and brain function.
Interestingly, my search led me to learn about the human gut microbiome and how it influences the brain.
The Gut Microbiome
Let’s start with the origine, which is the gastro-intestinal tract. What lies inside your GI tract is a universe of microbes, which is called the gut microbiome. Researchers are just starting to scratch the surface on how these microbes impact our health, and influence our minds, from behavioural issues to mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s for example.
These gut microbes have minds and interests of their own, to ensure their own survival. As Jeffrey Norris explains in this article on the University of California in San Fransisco (UCSF) website, there is actually a power struggle happening inside our guts:
“Bacterial species vary in the nutrients they need. Some prefer fat, and others sugar, for instance. But they not only vie with each other for food and to retain a niche within their ecosystem – our digestive tracts – they also often have different aims than we do when it comes to our own actions […]”
“While it is unclear exactly how this occurs, the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioural responses.”
“Bacteria within the gut are manipulative […]. There is a diversity of interests represented in the microbiome, some aligned with our own dietary goals, and others not.”
“Fortunately, it’s a two-way street. We can influence the compatibility of these microscopic, single-celled houseguests by deliberately altering what we ingest […] with measurable changes in the microbiome within 24 hours of diet change.”
The study behind these findings acknowledges that the bacteria residing inside our guts actually persuade us to make particular food choices. Which means that whether the food we want to eat is known to be unhealthy or whether it is healthy but may cause inflammation due to intolerance, there is a battle between what feels good to eat, and using rational judgement to make the right choices.
And how do our genes affect our gut microbiota? Are we at the mercy of the genetic makeup given to us at birth? Another study by researchers at UCSF suggests that we actually have the power to alter the health of our internal ecosystem through diet, which dominates over genetics.
“This raises hopes for treating individuals whose gut microbiomes are unhealthy”, according to Peter Turnbaugh, PhD, leader of the study at UCSF.
“It may someday be possible to design diets that shape the gut microbiome in a way that is therapeutically beneficial,” Turnbaugh said. “The good news is that the microbial response to a given diet may be similar for many people’s microbial communities, suggesting that we might not need to tailor interventions differently for every single person.”(Excerpts taken from this article, again by Jeffrey Norris).
Vagus Nerve: The Connection Between Gut Microbiome And Brain
My new best friend. Pronounced like the name Vegas, the vagus nerve connects from the base of the brain to the digestive tract (with multiple destinations on the way), and is responsible for myriad of bodily function, including digesting food, heart rate, blood pressure, and sending signals of hunger to your brain. The most interesting fact I learned about the vagus nerve, is that 80 to 90% of its nerve fibres are actually afferent (sensory) nerves, communicating the state of abdominal organs to the brain. (source)
Simply explained, think of the vagus nerve as an informational highway. In the north resides your brain and Central Nervous System (CNS), and the highway connects to southern destinations such as your GI tract, and the rest of your viscera. Now this highway has 5 lanes. Only 1 lane is southbound, sending information from your CNS to your organs, specifically on muscular function. The other 4 lanes are northbound, signalling your brain on how your GI tract and other organs are doing. Guess what happens when neurotransmitters in your gut are all out of whack due to bacterial dysbiosis? Your brain ends up feeling it too.
This information would lead me to believe that my GI tract, otherwise known as my “second brain”, could in actuality have more influence over the brain in my skull than the other way around. Which means the statement, that anxiety is “all in my head”, could in fact be wrong. This would also explain why I was able to get rid of anxiety with, what I call, therapeutic nutrition. If our gut microbiome can have this much influence over our thoughts and behaviours, I believe psychiatry will eventually include the analysis of our gut microbes.
How I ended the cycle
Once I got back on the soup diet for good, my symptoms slowly began to dissipate. By the month of February, I was back in school but still had to be very careful about the food I ate. Other than the soup, I ate white meat and cooked vegetables. The only raw veggies I felt comfortable digesting were leafy greens, including kale and spinach. Any nuts or fruit troubled me and increased the anxiety. Slowly I was able to get 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep. I had to remain rigid with my diet until one day in early April 2015, my period came back and I could actually feel in my gut that the anxiety was gone.
It’s been 8 months since that terrifying period in my life. I’ve had two minor episodes of anxiety since, which only lasted a few hours each and were linked to stressful situations, but I seem to have learned how to bounce back, and I still treat myself with the right food when I do.
I think it’s important that I share my story because many people seem to suffer quietly, and I hope this resonates and helps in any way. I can’t say that my path is the way to go for everyone suffering with anxiety, but I do believe that the person suffering must be engaged in their own healing, and not rely ONLY on external influences. At some point, we must look inward and feel the signals our bodies are sending to us. It starts by loving yourself and never giving up.
About the Author
As Founder of TheCoconut, I am on a mission to spread truth on healthy and happy living. What matters to me: eating and shopping local, which means supporting all of our local entrepreneurs and businesses that promote a better life in Ottawa.
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