Anyone who has ever spent the night self-soothing with a pint of Häagen-Dazs after a traumatic event knows our stomachs and brains are inherently connected. In fact, research continues to strengthen the claim that the food we eat impacts our mood. But could what you're putting in your belly actually cure depression?
“Butterflies in my stomach.”
“Just had a gut feeling.”
“I heard the news and felt my stomach drop.”
The stomach and intestinal tract, which doctors refer to in general as "the gut", has long been touted as the second brain, indicating physically what the mind might be working through mentally. But there’s more science to the idea of gut instinct than you might realize. While we know that emotions can affect our stomachs, it’s becoming clear that what goes on in the gut can affect the chemistry of the brain, too.
In the past several years, research has shown that probiotics and fermented foods can ease anxiety, boost immunity, and get your gut health in check. But new research suggests that not only can you decrease anxiety with beneficial bacteria, but you can also fight and reverse symptoms of depression—a study out of University College Cork in Ireland found that when added to the gut microbiome, probiotic cultures regulate emotional behavior.
Let's be clear: Depression is a serious mental condition that isn’t to be taken lightly, and no, you may not be able to completely cure it by adding some sauerkraut to your bratwurst. But, you could make a huge impact over your lifetime on your mood and your happiness by incorporating gut-friendly foods into your diet; in another study from the University of Mexico where the authors uncovered the connection between the gut-brain axis and the role of nutrition's effect on mood, researchers concluded the use of probiotics could prevent or act as an alternative to medication for depression sufferers.
Globally, 350 million people suffer from depression, and in the United States one in 10 people rely on antidepressants to function and experience life fully. Medication for depression is a treatment that works, as is therapy in all of its iterations; but visiting doctors and popping pills indefinitely can get pricey fast, and there are lots of negative side effects of antidepressants, nausea, irritability, and anxiety.
This is where your gut comes in. What's happening in your stomach and intestinal tract can affect your mood, behavior, and mental acuity. Those who have digestion issues often complain of “brain fog”, a general feeling of confusion or mental fatigue, and as soon as gut issues like IBS or Celiac's disease are treated and resolved, patients note a change in mental clarity.
So inflammation directly affects our mood, which might mean that chronic inflammation in the body could be a contributing cause to depression. It's true that higher levels of inflammation increase the risk of developing symptoms of depression, and those who take antidepressants have their inflammatory markers decrease significantly. An analysis by Yale University found that across 22 studies, patients who treated depressive symptoms had lowered levels of inflammation, which could indicate that inflammation and depression are inherently connected.
Surprisingly, 90 percent of the serotonin in the body is created in the gut; low serotonin levels and lack of serotonin receptors in the brain are often cited by medical professionals as a main cause of depression. Because inflammation is a response in large part to what you eat, and because so much of our body's natural serotonin is produced in the gut, scientists now believe that if you heal your stomach, you may be able to heal your brain.
In a study completed at UCLA, a group of 36 women ate probiotic rich foods like yogurt twice a day for a month, while another group ate similar food that contained no probiotic benefits. The results after 30 days? The probiotic group was able to regulate mood and emotions far better than the non-probiotic and control groups. Probiotic-filled and fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, and dark chocolate can lower anxiety levels and neurotic feelings in those with a tendency toward anxiety and depression.
Add these foods into your diet regularly to help lift your spirits and boost your mood naturally. Not a huge kimchi fan? Try a probiotic supplement, which can be just as beneficial. It may not completely replace medication and therapy, but with no clear cut answer to curing depression, fermented foods certainly provide a bright future for those who fight this serious illness.
Photo credit: Susy Morris via Flickr