A friend’s father was admitted to the hospital last week for severe depression.
For the last nine months, his doctors experimented on him with a series of pharmaceutical antidepressants. But those did nothing, except leave him with a bad case of constipation.
Their explanation? Something about a “chemical imbalance” and serotonin deficiency in his brain.
But is depression all in your head?
New science indicates that the root cause of my friend’s father’s crippling unhappiness may not be in his head at all… but deep in his gut.
Your Gut Has a Mind of its Own…
A Little-Known “Second Brain”
While we think of neurons as being packed in our skulls, we actually have a “second brain” running from the esophagus down to the end of your large intestine. Known as the enteric nervous system, the nine meter-long alimentary canal that constitutes our gut is lined with over 100 million neurons – more brain cells than in our spinal cord.
These neurons act like an independent field office for your brain, controlling digestion and excretion without your conscious thought. But like all good field agents, these gut neurons also gather information and send feedback to your main brain.
According to Dr. Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, this feedback mechanism may determine our moods and our general sense of emotional well-being.
We have trillions of bacteria in our enteric nervous system — 10 times more than all of the human cells in our entire body — and they are in constant communication with our gut neurons.
In addition, our gut uses more than 30 of the same neurotransmitters that our brain relies on for keeping our thinking sharp and our mood stable. In fact, 95 percent of our supply of the “feel good” neurotransmitter serotonin resides in our bowel.
So strong is this brain-gut connection that it has spawned a new field of study called “neurogastroenterology” to explore the relationship between digestive health and mental health.
Research has already led to promising experiments in which electrical stimulation of the stomach’s vagus nerve may relieve symptoms of intransigent depression.
And just as the gut can affect the brain, manipulating the brain with pharmaceuticals can lead to gastrointestinal imbalances. For example, common depression drugs, like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro, etc. can cause problems in your gut, like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.
How Do Problems in Your Gut Lead to
Mood Disorders and Depression?
There are over 400 strains of bacteria in the human gut and many billion of these — 85% of them in fact— are “friendly.”
But when the ratio of friendly bacteria — known as probiotics — to hostile bacteria is disrupted, your brain as well as your bowels may be affected.
The major threat to the optimal balance between probiotics and bad bacteria is the overuse of antibiotics. These drugs wreak havoc with the immune system by killing off not only bad bacteria but also the good bacteria that battle infection from viruses, yeasts, fungi and parasites.
In addition, the balance of good and bad bacteria can be disrupted by excessive alcohol use, stress, diseases and toxins which allow harmful bacteria to thrive.
To rebalance the scales, we need to take in more probiotics to repopulate the gut.
Get Your Gut Bacteria Back into Balance
Probiotics occur naturally in many fermented foods and they give pickled foods their naturally sour taste.
Perhaps the most popular food source of probiotics is yogurt, and for good reason. Dairy is a particularly efficient delivery system for probiotics since it acts as a buffer protecting the live bacteria from stomach acid. This allows them to survive the journey from the stomach into the large intestine.
When buying yogurt, it’s important to look for “live, active cultures” on the label, and always opt for organic versions. Also, look for plain yogurt with no added sugars which can feed bad bacteria and lead to their overgrowth.
Other fermented foods that are natural sources of probiotics include:
- Sauerkraut, pickles and pickled vegetables
- Kimchi (fermented Korean cabbage)
- Sour dough bread
- Kombucha (fermented green or black tea)
- Naturally fermented soy sauce
- Kefir (a dairy drink similar to yogurt)
In addition to fermented foods, many naturopaths and holistic doctors recommend taking probiotics daily in supplement form to restore the bacterial balance in your gut.
When buying a probiotic, look for a product that guarantees 10-20 billion CFUs (colony forming units) at the expiration date. This is important, because probiotics are extremely sensitive to heat, humidity, pH levels and oxygen. Between the time of packaging and the time you take them, many billion of the bacteria may die.
And that’s not the only challenge you face when taking probiotics.
Some studies have shown that 99% or more of probiotics are killed when exposed to your stomach acid, long before they can provide any benefits.
Look for a product with an “enteric coating” or “encapsulation” to ensure that the cultures survive the trip into your intestine.
Theralac is one of my favorite brands.
It’s a reliable probiotic that guarantees 30 billion CFU through the expiration date. And a patented acid-proof gel coating ensures that the probiotics remain active during their transit through your digestive system.
The price of Theralac varies, depending on where you buy it. You may find cheaper sources it you do a Google search, but it’s also available direct from the company at http://www.theralac.com/acid-proof-delivery.aspx.
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