Recently, I began working with a woman suffering from severe depression whose roots were firmly established in her youth. Now at age 45, this was a pervasive, debilitating condition that got in the way of her ability to work productively, raise her child in a healthy, balanced way, and thwarted her ability to think positively about her life or herself. It was corrosive, and she was desperate to get well, so that she could live the second half of her life in a way that affirmed life, rather than making her feel like giving up.
After going through her medical history and nutritional status, I was not surprised to find that she also suffered from chronic irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn and indigestion. Depression seems to run hand-in-hand with gastrointestinal issues. When someone tells me they are on an antidepressant, I tell them “Then you also have allergies, a skin condition or a gastrointestinal problem.” They are always surprised at the accuracy of my statement. They ask how I know. Because the body has a story, and the story of depression begins with our digestion.
If you look at the top 10 medications prescribed in the U.S. you can see what it says about our general health and the health of our diets. You will find that we are a gassy, psychotic, obese and heart-diseased bunch. We are disconnected from our health and often diseased and depressed. It seems that we have become that way primarily over the past 10 years.
The number one medication prescribed for at least the past five years has been a cholesterol-lowering medication. The next most commonly prescribed medication in the U.S. is a proton pump inhibitor used for the treatment of heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease. This medication helps to alleviate the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress by stopping the production of hydrochloric acid, which also happens to be necessary for digestion. The theory is that too much acid causes problems, so inhibiting acid will solve them. This may be true in the short term, providing temporary relief, but in the long term? Not so much. In fact, with prolonged use these medications can wreak havoc with your system: impeding digestion, affecting the absorption of nutrients and creating a great deal of toxicity. These heartburn-relief medications (prescription or over-the-counter) are designed to be used in six- to eight-week intervals. The reality is that people are taking them for years without a thought to the long-term effects.
So what does this have to do with depression? Quite a bit. The fifth most commonly prescribed medication is an antipsychotic medication. Apparently, mere antidepressants are not sufficient anymore. And again, to understand why, we need to look to the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel calm and happy, needs to attach to its receptor site to exert its effects. Turns out that 85% of serotonin receptor sites reside within the gastrointestinal tract. Now imagine, if there is toxicity and inflammation in that area, what might be happening to those receptor sites? They get compromised, and instead of staying open, ready to receive serotonin, they down-regulate (close themselves off in a way) to protect themselves. When this happens, serotonin has a harder time finding a fit to the receptor sites and mood begins to deteriorate. A consequence of this is perpetuated bad eating — as anyone who has had a depressive episode can tell you — and the cycle continues.
So what can one do? The first thing is to try to wean yourself off of these acid inhibitors. It is not recommended to stop cold turkey because of potential rebound reactions that can often make the heartburn symptoms worse. At the same time, begin taking digestive enzymes to assist your body in the digestion of food. In addition, a high potency probiotic formula will begin re-establishing healthy intestinal flora, which will also help with digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
While the supplements will be helpful, they will not make a dent without also addressing diet. People who tend towards depression also tend to consume a good percentage of their daily calories in the form of sugar. Sugar is a quick inducer of serotonin and can offer an immediate sense of calm and well being. Of course, it is only fleeting and wears off just as fast as it came, leaving one feeling worse than before. This was definitely the case with my client, so we began working on eliminating sugar and instead had her use fruit to satisfy her sweet cravings. As of our last visit, she was beginning to see through the clouds and felt that she was on a path that would help her feel better. It was rewarding to see.
Whilst some medications have proven—in the absence of alternative cures or remedies—to immensely improve the quality of a patient’s life, it is naïve to think that we can fix all of our physical or mental problems through medication alone. Oftentimes, even in these instances, it is at the expense of one compromise or another to ones physical or mental health through side effects or otherwise – be they minimal or significant. It is also a scary prospect that the current path of a huge portion of the population is to ‘pop a pill’ with no assumption of personal responsibility to take control of their health. What’s necessary is a proactive, comprehensive approach that includes alterations in diet, lifestyle and perhaps most importantly our overall outlook.
It is important to understand that whilst I passionately advocate therapeutic nutrition as powerful method for attaining optimum health, it is imperative that you consult your health care provider before undertaking any significant dietary changes or supplementation. Any reduction or discontinuation of medication should be done strictly under the guidance of a medical professional.
What I have learned in all my years of work is that the body is an incredible organism that knows what to do to be well and will go a long way to bat for you if you provide the right elements. Give it a little bit, and it will go a long way for you!
I would love to hear your comments below if you have interesting experiences or thoughts that you’d like to share regarding navigating your health in crisis. If you’d like to learn more about therapeutic nutrition for chronic illnesses and everyday ailments, I will be teaching a 5 week series on Tuesday evenings at the New York Open Center beginning this coming Tuesday, May 31!