It would be foolish to believe that depression can be overcome with a single solution.
But for some people, the light at the end of the tunnel shines in a very surprising place.
It certainly did for me. Healing my depression came with healing my gastrointestinal tract—my gut.
When I became a nutrition student in 1992, I had a lot of healing to do. I had the irritable bowel from hell. No treatment had worked: not conventional medicine, nor the truly woo-woo stuff.
What I discovered, as a student, was that I had something called a “leaky gut”. Cue much hilarity at that.
The term leaky gut conjures up an image of cartoonish pseudoscience. But when given its scientific nomenclature — “intestinal permeability” — the idea immediately gains credibility.
Furthermore, the scientific evidence for the association between gut health and brain health is strong and gathering momentum.
What is a leaky gut? How can it lead to depression?
Your gut does much more than just digest your food and extract the goodies from it. It forms a protective barrier between your insides and the external world.
But the system has a weakness. This barrier — the gut lining — consists of just a single layer of cells, called the epithelium. The cells of this fragile layer are held together by proteins called “tight junctions”.
Like doormen carefully guarding your innards, these tight junctions sift out undesirable elements and block their entrance. Under normal circumstances, troublemakers are given short shrift and expelled from the gut in the normal way. These include toxins, undigested food particles, microscopic bugs and other foreign bodies that have found their way in via your food and drink.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to damage the epithelium, leaving it leaky. Microscopic holes appear and the tight junctions start to loosen. For the assortment of rabble able to cross into your bloodstream, it’s like having an all-access pass to the rest of your body.
Mayhem ensues, and it isn’t pretty.
Unsurprisingly, the symptoms of a leaky gut can show up anywhere, from the gut to the joints, from the skin to the brain.
I was proof of that. For 15 years, I lived with daily abdominal pain, often excruciating, accompanied by some extraordinary bloating and gas.
I could have lived with all that. But as a sensitive young adult, I could have done without the blemishes. Not, thankfully, on my face. But my chest and back were peppered. I was hugely self-conscious, and only wore clothes that covered up those areas. Summers could be tricky.
Part of the problem is — and certainly was, for me — toxic overload. The liver normally copes well with the body’s everyday toxins, but when the burden exceeds capacity, they get dumped elsewhere. In my case, it was skin.
Different people experience different symptoms. There are many conditions associated with a gut that has lost its integrity and become porous, including inflammatory bowel disorder, coeliac disease, arthritis, eczema, and, of course, acne.
Scientists have recently added depression to that list.
The link between depression and leaky gut is inflammation, and inflammation is one of the key characteristics of intestinal permeability. It is largely created by bacteria.
Bacteria belong in the gut, where they normally either stay put or move out. But when the gut is leaky, they are able to cross into the bloodstream (a process known as “translocation of bacteria”), where they release a toxic substance called endotoxin.
This endotoxin sets in motion an immune response. This response includes the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines, and a substance called lipopolysaccharide (LPS).
There is growing evidence that cytokines and LPS can trigger major depression (MDD), also known as clinical depression. So much so that in 2008 Belgian researchers concluded, in a study published in the journal Neuroendocrinology Letters, that:
“Patients with MDD should be checked for leaky gut”.
Since then, the research into the link between gut inflammation and depression has continued. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an extraordinary 47% of people with clinical depression also have ‘heightened’ inflammation.
How does inflammation have this effect?
Cytokines are able to trigger depression by altering activity in the regions of the brain that control mood. They also cause damage in those regions.
This can result in feelings of negativity and fatigue, an effect that has also been observed in cancer therapy. Cytokine is used to treat some cancers and viral infections — and can trigger the onset of major depression in up to 45% of patients.
On the bright side…
Interestingly, researchers have found that that when clinical depression goes into remission, so too does inflammation.
Scientists describe these recent revelations as:
“A paradigm shift in neuroscience, with possible implications for not only understanding the pathophysiology of stress-related psychiatric disorders, but also their treatment”.
Something must be causing the exponential rise in depression that is occurring on a global scale. The World Health Organization describes depression as ‘the leading cause of disability’ in the world. The U.S. leads the way, with 13% of the population on anti-depressants.
If we look at the nature of modern diets and lifestyles, it seems obvious that they are a catalyst for the inflammatory process.
– Maria Cross MSc
Image Source: Flickr.com