Plenty of studies have determined that your diet directly affects mental health, depression and anxiety specifically, by impacting the bacteria in your gut and how they contribute to inflammation in your body. Gut bacteria are gatekeepers which sound the alarm by sending inflammatory messages to your body and brain.
What goes into your body has everything to do with what goes on in your head. In “How What Goes In Your Mouth Affects What Goes On In Your Brain,” I explain:
It’s not yet clear how the microbiome alters the brain exactly, but it’s probably via multiple mechanisms, including neural, hormonal, and immune pathways. Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters which play a key role in determining moods. Gut bugs may generate other neuroactive chemicals, that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression. It’s also been shown that some microbes activate the vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain, which has a calming effect. Additionally, your microbiome is intertwined with your immune system, which itself influences your mood and behavior.
Science is showing that people who stick to diets rich in anti-inflammatory fats and proteins have significantly lower rates of depression. A diet high in carbs and sugar increases inflammation in the body and ups depression rates. According to the article, What Is Your Gut Telling You?, “There’s a good chance your microbiome is associated with every disease you can think of.”
It’s possible that one day in the future, altering gut bacteria could be a treatment for neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders. Anxiety, depression, autism, and hyperactivity, have been linked with gastrointestinal abnormalities. Your body’s unique collection of microbes is partly inherited from your mother at birth and largely determined by your lifestyle after that.
The choices that you make about what goes into your mouth directly affects the bacteria communities inside you, greatly impacting your health in a surprisingly short period. One study found that the bacteria in peoples’ guts shifted within three to four days of a major diet change. The modern lifestyle can be incredibly toxic to your gut bacteria. Establishing and maintaining optimal gut flora may allow for optimal mental health.
According to Dr. Kelly Brogan in her book, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives, there are six common substances that have been shown to detrimentally alter gut bacteria, drive inflammation, and increase the risk for depression.
Natural sugar, fructose, may contribute to depression and anxiety. While fructose is found in real foods our ancestors ate, our bodies have not evolved to process the overwhelming quantity the average human consumes today. The industry isolated fructoses (high fructose corn syrups) have been connected to depression and obesity, which may also be linked to depression.
Artificial sweeteners also pose a danger to your mental health. The human body cannot digest artificial sweeteners which is why they have no calories, but they still pass through your digestive system. Far from being the inert ingredients once believed, artificial sweeteners impact your gut bacteria in several ways. Research has shown that artificial sweeteners can lead to metabolic syndromes, such as insulin resistance and diabetes, and contribute to obesity.
Gluten, a protein in wheat, and similar proteins, known as prolamins found in barley, rye, and corn, are some of the most inflammatory ingredients currently known. There are actually two groups of gluten proteins and 12 different smaller units. A small percentage of the population has strong biological and psychological reactions to ingesting these and is diagnosed with “gluten sensitivity” or “celiac disease.”
However, you don’t have to have either of these conditions for gluten to have detrimental effects. In one study, inflammatory response was noted in healthy volunteers, suggesting that gluten may cause reactions in everyone.
Science has associated gluten with depression, anxiety, seizures, multiple sclerosis, ADHD, ataxia, and nerve damage. According to gluten researcher Dr. Marios Hadjivassiliou, “gluten sensitivity can be primarily, and at times exclusively, a neurological disease.”
A family of proteins, called casein, found in mammalian milk are morphine-like compounds that interact with opiate receptors in your brain and other tissues. No wonder we like dairy foods so much. (While I ‘ve managed to give up most dairy, I’ll admit that I can’t seem to part with my Greek yogurt, and I do indulge in an occasional cheese binge.)
Gluten and casein are molecularly similar. Studies support that the human immune system response to the protein casein in dairy plays a role in conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia.
Antibiotics kill bacteria in your body, including the good regulatory bugs in your intestines. The use of antibiotics was studied and introduced before we knew about the important function of gut flora. These medications have never been adequately studied for safety since the new developments. Science is showing that the effects of antibiotics aren’t easily undone, can persist for months, and can result in permanent changes in your gut microbiome.
While antibiotics are very helpful, they are also wildly over-used, which means people are wiping out their bodies’ beneficial bacteria, meant to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation among other things. According to one study, “Clearly, even a single antibiotic treatment in healthy individuals contributes to the risk of resistance development and leads to long-lasting detrimental shifts in the gut microbiome.”
Common pesticides, deemed safe and used in abundance, are known to impact human gut flora negatively. For instance, Monsanto’s Roundup contains glyphosate which affects beneficial human bacteria by disrupting a plant’s metabolic route that it uses to manufacture amino acids. Essential amino acids that we need and cannot produce ourselves. It’s well-known that dietary deficiencies can contribute to many mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are engineered to be more resistant to pesticides or even to produce pesticides themselves. The genetic modification of crops guarantees exposure to pesticides and herbicides and runs the risk of the transferring altered plant genes to human gut bacteria, which could potentially turn them into pesticide-producing factories.
NSAIDs and Proton-Pump Inhibitors (Acid-Reflux Drugs)
NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen), the most common pain reliever in the world pain, and modern-day antacids (Nexium, Prevacid, Prilosec, etc.) are common, over-the-counter medications people use every day, assuming they’re safe. However, these substances are far from harmless to the microbes in your intestines. Besides causing dysbiosis (where the bad bacteria take over), long-term use of these drugs can cause bleeding, deplete nutrients, increase intestinal permeability, aggravate your immune system, and trigger autoimmune and inflammatory reactions.
As already established, anything upsetting the balance of your gut bacteria can affect your mental health. Research has correlated NSAIDs with increased psychiatric symptoms, and proton-pump inhibitors have also been linked to dementia.