Unlocking The Powerful Connection Between Gut Inflammation And Mental Health

Published on: Oct 1, 2023

The Link Between Leaky Gut, Depression, & Anxiety: Part Two in the Series

In part two of my Digestion and Mental Health Series, we’ll look at the connection between gut inflammation and mental health — as well as what you can do to support a healthy gut, mind, and body. 

If you read part one of my Digestion and Mental Health Series, I focused on the vagus nerve and its incredibly powerful impact on the gut, brain, and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). I also shared five vagus nerve exercises that stimulate the vagal nerves, strengthen the gut-brain connection, and improve gastrointestinal health (while simultaneously reducing stress and anxiety!). 

As a reminder, anxiety, depression, and gastrointestinal conditions like leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are all signs of vagus nerve dysfunction and disruptions in the gut-brain connection. But what causes vagus nerve dysfunction in the first place? In many cases, persistent inflammation in the body. Everything from our gut microbiota and diets to the toxins we encounter in our daily lives can trigger inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, increase intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut), and impair mental health!

Let’s explore the connection!

Chronic Inflammation vs. Acute Inflammation

You’re probably already familiar with some of the more common signs of acute inflammation in the body: a beneficial type of inflammation that occurs as a result of injury, illness, infection, or another type of trauma. In this type of situation, the immune system rushes to the scene to protect the body from further harm—inducing symptoms like redness, pain, and swelling. This is completely normal and an integral part of the healing process!

But at the root of many physical and mental health concerns is chronic inflammation: low-grade inflammation that sticks around long after an injury, illness, or infection has occurred. Instead of protecting the body from harm and inducing healing, chronic inflammation is a dangerous type of inflammation that builds up in the body over several months or years — often without signs or symptoms. Many of us don’t know we have inflammation in our bodies until the inflammation turns into something much more serious or bothersome (more on this below). 

Gut Inflammation, Mental Health, & Intestinal Permeability Connection

You may remember from last month’s post that the gut and brain communicate via the vagal nerves; this is what we call the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis. Disruptions in the gut-brain crosstalk — which may include inflammation, leaky gut, stress, and trauma — can cause digestive issues as well as mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. 

A few of the gastrointestinal conditions that have been linked to gut inflammation, intestinal permeability (or leaky gut), and poor mental health include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
  • Celiac disease.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Gut dysbiosis.
  • Helicobacter pylori infections.

We’ll take a deeper dive into the topic of dysbiosis in next month’s blog post, but until then, we’ll talk a little bit about IBD, celiac disease, and IBS in the sections below. 

IBD & Celiac Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is just one example of how gut inflammation and increased intestinal permeability affect our physical and mental health. Gut and brain-related symptoms are commonly experienced among those of us with inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both conditions disrupt the gut-brain axis, resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms as well as depression and anxiety

The same is true for celiac disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder that disrupts digestion and mental health. According to one peer-reviewed article, celiac disease is associated with digestive disturbances and psychological concerns such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. 

IBS & Gut Inflammation

Gut inflammation has also been shown to perpetuate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a functional GI disorder. Similar to IBD, living with IBS is often quite detrimental to our physical and mental well-being; a study published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry linked IBS to panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression. 

Inflammation & Other Diseases That Affect Mental Health

In addition to gut conditions like IBD, celiac disease, and IBS, persistent inflammation is linked to certain cancers and other chronic diseases that affect the body’s cardiovascular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, metabolic, and skeletal systems (e.g. arthritis, diabetes/prediabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Alzheimer’s disease). And thanks to the gut-brain connection, many of these chronic diseases affect us physically and mentally. This is especially true of the conditions that impact our gastrointestinal, metabolic, and neurological systems.

Chronic Gut Inflammation, Nutrient Absorption, and Mental Health Connection

It’s important to note that chronic gut inflammation can hamper proper nutrient absorption, alter gut microbiota, and significantly impact mental health.

The small intestine absorbs most nutrients including carbohydrates, fats, protein, minerals, and vitamins that are crucial for brain function and energy production. Inflammation of the small intestine (such as in IBD) can disturb the digestion of food and cause issues absorbing nutrients. This poor digestion and absorption of nutrients can lead to malnutrition in people with severe chronic inflammation of the gut.

Additionally, many of the vitamins and minerals absorbed in the small intestine are crucial for maintaining optimal mental well-being as well as protecting against depression and anxiety. Deficiencies in these nutrients may weaken the body’s ability to regulate mood, stress, and emotions through disrupted neurotransmitter production as well as be a sign of gut inflammation. Read my previous blog posts on vitamin B, vitamin D, and choline to learn how these vitamin deficiencies can impair mental health and wellness. 

Can You Test for Chronic Inflammation?

Yes, it is possible to test for chronic inflammation. Two commonly used inflammatory markers include c-reactive protein and erythrocyte sedimentation rate. In addition, a colonoscopy and stool testing can also detect inflammation of the gut.

It’s super important to pay attention to some of the more subtle signs of chronic inflammation in the body. Symptoms like brain fog, diarrhea, depression, and anxiety are all good indicators that inflammation may be present. In addition, developing an autoimmune disease or other chronic disease like diabetes can indicate that inflammation may be present.

Reduce Gut Inflammation for Improved Mental Health

To reduce inflammation in the body, heal a leaky gut, increase vagal activity, and improve the gut-brain connection, a combined approach is best. An approach that aligns with your unique body, mind, and soul! 

Firstly, I highly recommend incorporating a few vagal nerve exercises into your self-care routine. Some of my favorite ways to stimulate the vagus nerve include diaphragmatic breathing, cold water exposure, and mindful eating. 

Secondly, you already know from reading my blog that nutrition and gut microbes are two HUGE factors that affect both mental health and physical wellness! However, it’s also true that the right mood and gut-boosting foods for one person may not be suitable for everyone. This is where nutrigenomics and epigenetics come in! By using nutrigenomic testing to tap into your unique genes, we can figure out which foods, supplements, and other therapies will be most effective for you

Whether you’re struggling with your digestion, mental health, or both, my coaching services can help you optimize your mind, body, and spirit while reducing chronic inflammation through personalized nutrition, nervous system regulation, daily movement, and other lifestyle changes. Book a free 20-minute call with me today to begin your holistic wellness journey!


Ready to nourish your body, mind, and soul while reducing inflammation and healing your gut? Book a call with me to learn all about holistic mental health and wellness and how it can help you transform your mind, body, and spirit.

References:

Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here are not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician, registered dietitian nutritionist, or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

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Howdy! I’m Haley. A registered dietitian nutritionist, yoga teacher, personal trainer, and holistic mental wellness coach on a mission to help you transcend the struggle, stress, and suffering that life can bring. I’ve lived through it and discovered a path to feeling amazing in my mind, body, and soul. Now, I want to help you to live your most fulfilled life too through evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle practices!

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