The critical role of diet in mental health
In naturopathic school, I tired of hearing, no matter what the health complaint, ‘Treat the Gut’! Really?! At first it was a little hard to swallow that one’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract could affect so much. I must say that this is now much easier to swallow after seeing the improved mental health in so many patients as their GI health was improved. However, it is not always easy to convince patients of this, especially in the realm of mental health. How could what one eats and the state of one’s digestion cause or contribute to anxiety, poor memory, mood swings, depression, psychosis and more?
Here is where the groundbreaking work of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride comes in. In working to understand the link between digestive and mental health, she discusses much about the workings of the digestive tract and devises a diet to help those with gut-related psychological/psychiatric issues to heal (known as the ‘GAPS’ diet or Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet). Her observations are that those with GAPS syndrome are not only potentially suffering from any of a spectrum of psychological, neurological or psychiatric conditions, but are also physically unwell.
A healthy adult GI tract contains 1.5-2 kilograms of bacteria that serve to neutralize toxins, defend against pathogenic strains of bacteria, maintain the proper level of acidity for normal physiologic functions, produce vitamins, namely B1, B2, B6, B12 and vitamin K, aid in transporting nutrients across the gut wall, digest fiber, nourish the cells of the GI tract and regulate the immune system of the gut (gut associated lymphoid tissue, or GALT) and the entire body’s immune system.
Aberrations in gut flora can thus lead to aberrations in the immune system, one of which is autoimmune reactions or disease. Furthermore, the nutritional deficiencies that result from dysbiosis (imbalanced or insufficient gut flora) result in a malnourished immune system; incapable of properly carrying out its important physiologic functions. The vicious circle continues with endotoxins (toxins produced by abnormal gut flora) further damaging the immune system.
The phenomenon of ‘leaky gut’ is caused by pathogenic bacteria damaging the integrity of the gut wall. This allows partially digested food particles to enter into the blood. The immune system, unaccustomed to seeing such particles, recognizes them as foreign and attacks them. Now a food allergy or intolerance is established.
So how does gut flora become damaged and imbalanced? Unfortunately there are a number of ways which include, but are not limited to, the following:
Antibiotics– From medications taken for infections, but also from food (antibiotics used in the production of meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish & shellfish (farm raised)). Fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes and nuts can also be sprayed with antibiotics.
Other medications– pain killers, analgesics, steroids, oral contraceptives, sedatives, proton pump inhibitors, neuroleptics , hormone therapy and chemotherapy
Medical interventions– surgery & radiotherapy
Diet– high levels of sugars, refined carbohydrates and grains & prolonged fasting or over-eating
Disease– GI disorders/infections (typhoid, dysentery, salmonella, cholera) as well as diabetes, autoimmune disease, endocrine diseases and obesity
Stress- long-term stress (physical or psychological)
Alcohol, pollution, exposure to toxins and extreme climates can also adversely affect gut flora.
To address the multiple imbalances of someone with poor GI health, or GAPS syndrome, it is tempting to recommend/to take nutrients and other supplements, however with poor GI flora and function, it is unlikely that such supplements can be absorbed. Hence the creation of a diet that helps to heal the GI tract (GAPS diet) and the very judicious use of supplements once some GI healing has occurred.
The GAPS diet consists (initially) of a diet without dairy, grains, legumes, fibrous & starchy vegetables or processed foods. Regular consumption of meat/fish broths, bone broths, fermented vegetables, healthy animal products, permitted vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds are encouraged.
To learn more about your digestive health, consult with a healthcare provider trained in assessing GI function. And to learn more about the GAPS diet, I refer you to Dr. McBride’s book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome.
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Campbell-McBride, N.(2010). Gut and Psychology Syndrome. York, PA: Maple Press.