About 65 years ago the first widely viewed psychiatric manual was published known as the diagnostics and statistics manual. Just over 100 disorders were categorized such as major depression, bipolar disorder (then manic depression) and schizophrenia. While these terms had been around for a while this was the first time they were codified into one book. In the 80s we added ADHD and bipolar II (strong mood swings without psychosis) and in the recently published DSM V there are over 300 disorders, each listed with a set of symptoms.
Today we have a number of drugs that specifically are associated with many of these diagnoses. Antidepressants are offered to treat depression. Mood stabilizers treat bipolar. Benzodiazapenes treat anxiety and antipsychotics treat psychosis (and increasingly almost everything off label.) Each of these drugs targets particular neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin or GABA and strongly modulate our mood. It has been popularly theorized that mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance- a little too much or too little of one of these neurotransmitters, and that these drugs can correct the imbalance. Though neurotransmitters are undoubtedly associated with mood and cognition, the chemical imbalance theory has now been discredited as being far too simplistic and a wide variety of new ideas have emerged to help us understand emotional distress.
Gut Brain Axis
One of the main new ways for understanding patterns of distress is that they are often related to underlying digestive health. Numerous studies are now implicating bacterial imbalance (dysbiosis), leaky gut and chronic inflammation as intimately entwined with distress such as depression and anxiety. There are hundreds of different strains and trillions of bacteria in the gut that interact and affect digestive function in a complicated and intricate dance. The entire bacterial ecosystem, known as the gut micobiome, weighs up to 3 pounds. Amongst many functions, they are responsible for producing vitamins, helping to digest food and remove toxins. Truly we are symbiotic with a vast forest of microorganisms.
We are also finding that some strains of bacteria are more associated with depression and distress than others. Mice who receive lactobacillus will become more calm and peaceful and mice who receive bacteria such as Campylobacter jejune become immunologically stressed and anxious. We are also discovering that bacteria can likely affect our stress response by affecting the vagus nerve in the digestive system that sends signals to the brain. Another way bacteria could affect our mood is when inflammation leads to permeability in the gut lining and microorganisms seep into our bloodstream- leading to immunological and mood disturbances. Essentially bacteria in the gut are talking to our brain and affecting our mood and emotions.
“Let Food be Thy Medicine”
So if our emotional health is intimately tied to the health of our gut, what are some powerful ways to help modulate our mood? What seems likely is that we need to encourage beneficial bacteria in our body and reduce inflammation throughout the body. Outside of reducing stress and working through trauma, the primary way of accomplishing this is through modifying our diet. Our modern diet is filled with pesticide laden and processed foods that are deeply damaging to the gut microbiome. We then add antibiotics, prescription drugs and household chemicals that kindle dysbiosis.
To heal from distress, its best to pay close attention to the gut. And that does not just mean buying the right prebiotics and probiotic supplements, though those can be helpful for some. What is key is to make and cook food that will help strengthen the digestion and support good gut microbiota.
Here are some suggestions:
1- Quit Processed foods. The key to improving gut health is to avoid a diet that is filled with sugar, highfructose corn syrup, fast food and pesticides. To improve the intestinal micro biome and reduce inflammation, we need to shift to a whole foods diet.
2- Avoid antibiotics and other drugs as much as possible. They wipe out good intestinal flora, increase inflammation and cause nutrient deficiencies when they reduce the ability of the gut to absorb adequate nutrition.
3- Make bone broth regularly. Bone broth made from chicken, bison, cow, fish and duck bones is extremely beneficial in healing the lining of the gut. Collagen found in bone broth repairs intestinal walls and strengthens the ability to digest and absorb nutrition. That means you will be able to assimilate the nutrients that come with your meal instead of just passing them through.
4- Add nourishing infusions to your diet. That means drinking teas infused with large quantity of nutrient dense herbs such as nettles, oat straw and red clover.
5- Add relaxing, “carminitive” herbs to your meals. Add herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, cumin, turmeric and coriander that are not only anti-inflammatory but also relax the digestive system to help it smoothly digest meals.
6- Take bitter herbs. Bitter herbs have long been known to stimulate the digestive system to function better. The bitter taste promotes gastric secretions of enzymes that help digest food better and improves hepatic metabolism to remove excess unneeded waste. Some classic bitter herbs include dandelion, gentian, angelica and burdock. These can be taken in tea or tincture form before a meal.
7- Add fermented foods. Instead of buying a probiotic pill containing only a few strains of bacteria, tryadding traditional fermented foods to your diet that will help support a wide beneficial mix of microorganisms. Kim chi, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, and yogurt have already been traditionally consumed to improve gut health. Think of these foods as containing “psychobiota”- bacteria that not only improves digestive health but improves mood and wellbeing as well.
In the last 65 years we have medicated our anxiety and depression using the theory that we could tinker with a few neurotransmitters. But we have been discovering that emotional health is far more complex than that and that the gut is increasingly an important piece of the puzzle. Traditional medicine practitioners from China and India have long viewed the digestive system as key to mental health. Hippocrates famously said “All diseases begin in the gut.” He also said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” We are now rediscovering the truth of these sayings from a modern scientific vantage.
Some further Reading:
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.