Everybody gets the blues or feels anxious from time to time. But for some of us, it’s a very real problem. In the United States alone 40 million people, about 18 percent of the population, suffer from anxiety disorders. And unfortunately, it’s not unusual for those with anxiety disorders to also suffer from depression. In fact, depression is the leading cause of disability in young people between the age of 15 and 44, with 16 million affected. That’s just in the U.S., those numbers swell when you take the rest of the world into consideration.
So, what’s causing this epidemic? Why are 350 million people worldwide suffering from this mental illness? And why are women more likely to be affected than men? Believe it or not, it could be as simple as what you’re eating…or not eating.
In The Gut-Brain Connection, I explore these questions and search for answers with my guests. Some of whom are experts in their fields and some who are just regular folks with a story to tell. But I can tell you that as a physician and gastroenterologist, I frequently see patients with GI issues. And after evaluation, I often discover that they are suffering from depression, anxiety and mood disorders. And I’ve seen, time and time again, an overall improvement in health, both physically and mentally — when the health of the gut is improved.
Gabby D’Auria was a happy, healthy 27-year old planning her wedding when a bout of food poisoning sent her health into a tailspin. For a year-and-a-half, she went from specialist to specialist searching for answers. Gabby says she became very frightened as she experienced symptoms of severe weight loss, fatigue, constipation and an inability to digest food. “I saw a cardiologist, a neurologist, and none of them were listening to my symptoms.” she tells me, “It was all gut related. I was completely healthy before I had this bout of food poisoning, and that just changed everything for my body”.
Gabby tells me the change in her physical health led to anxiety and ultimately depression. As she searched for answers Gabby was basically being told her symptoms were psychological, “Everything the doctors were telling me was, ‘Your results all look fine,’ but I wasn’t fine, so it was just a piece that they were missing.” she says. Now, I know that this is a fairly common phenomenon. Specialists will look at one piece of the puzzle, but not the whole picture. It’s not unusual for doctors to miss the connection between the physical problem and the mental or emotional issues. Gabby did finally find a physician who she says really listened to her and finally pieced the entire puzzle together. Find out the dietary adjustments Gabby made that put her back on the path to a healthy life.
My good friend Naveen Jain is the founder and CEO of Viome, a company at the forefront of finding answers to the gut-brain connection. Naveen tells me that even though we all share 99 percent of the same DNA, our guts are so diverse that we only share 5 percent of the same microbiomes. Fascinating! So what this essentially means is that what’s healthy eating for one person may not be healthy eating for someone else. “There’s no such thing as universal healthy food,” Naveen says, “and the food that’s good for you today may not be good for you three months from now, because our gut microbiome is constantly changing.” The good news is Viome has created a test to check the health of your gut. And the thing I like about it – is that you get real information about dietary changes you need to make to allow your body to function at peak performance.
Naveen and I discuss newer research that’s discovering connections between chronic inflammation, caused by an imbalance of gut microbiome, and illnesses like depression, PTSD, anxiety and even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I believe there’s a huge connection between the brain and the gut, which is referred to as the second brain. The vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves, extends all the way to the colon, sending vital information about our intestinal health to our brains. Also, 90 percent of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Naveen, a vegetarian, talks about the surprising results when he took the microbiome test and the changes he made to his own diet with the information he was given.
Dr. Shawn Talbott is a nutritionist who knows a thing or two about how what we put in our mouths affects what’s going on in our stomachs and ultimately our intestines. We talk about the difference between eating something that tastes good and eating something that’s good for you. “Any time we eat something, we’re either feeding the good bacteria or feeding the bad bacteria.” says Dr. Talbott. It’s that old saying we’ve heard before – you are what you eat. Dr. Talbott tells me that delicious processed food and fast food are really feeding the bad bacteria, which then creates chemicals that make us feel awful. Chemicals that interfere with our serotonin levels and increase inflammation, so we end up feeling bad both mentally and physically. Bottom line, he tells me, we’re growing the wrong kind of bacteria. I know It sounds weird, but in a way, it’s good news, because it means we can take control of our health.
Dr. Talbott says we can choose what kind of bacteria we want to grow and shares the secret of how you can change your microbiome in as little as three days. “If we feed it the right foods,” he says, “not only do you grow the right kinds of bacteria, but you starve away the bad guys.” So, how do you recognize the good foods? We all know we should be eating foods that are high in fiber, vitamins, flavonoids and more. Although it all sounds very complex and expensive, Dr. Talbott tells me it couldn’t be easier. You can just go to your regular grocery store and buy natural foods, basically food that is not canned or packaged. And the brighter the colors, the better. If you want to take things a step further, “You can get very therapeutic with it,” Dr. Talbott tells me, “you can take specific strains of probiotics that are good for depression, or anxiety, or stress.” That’s the next phase of nutrition.
Carrie Motluck is a patient of Dr. Shawn Talbott. She talks about the health problems that surfaced when she was only 16 years old. Carrie tells me that she went to numerous doctors including gastroenterologists and was diagnosed with chronic irritable bowel syndrome, but they couldn’t determine the cause. In addition, Carrie started taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs at the tender age of 18. But, she says, “When I really reflect on the situation, my mom was a single mom and we ate a ton of processed food.” Dr. Talbott says a lot of the signals Carrie was experiencing in her brain probably originated in her gut. “She was getting the wrong signals from the wrong kind of bacteria.” he says, “So what we wanted to do was change the environment, change the ecology of her gut so that she got the right signals.” Dr. Talbott shares the diet and probiotic regimen he developed to give Carrie’s health a reboot.
With a doctorate in nursing, Lisa Norris focuses a lot of her practice on healthy gut. She is so committed to the idea, that she owns a community garden and actually provides fresh produce to her neighborhood. Nurse Norris is also a big believer in probiotics through fermented foods. Now, we all know yogurt is a great go-to that is rich in probiotics, but other interesting foods like kimchi (fermented cabbage), pickles, kombucha tea, kefir (fermented milk), and miso soup are becoming more and more popular. Nurse Norris tells me “What fermented foods do is they break down the sugars and turns it into lactic acid.” She says they work because they give us the good bacteria and keep the bad bacteria out. But Nurse Norris says it’s important to start slow, “Add one thing a day. Do that for a couple weeks and then see how it goes.” And the best part, she tells me, is these fermented foods can be found in any grocery store, you don’t have to go to a specialty shop.
Julie Matthews is a nutritionist and the author of “Nourishing Hope for Autism”. She tells me research is showing that 80 percent of autistic children have gastrointestinal issues. Not only that, but there’s a strong correlation between the severity of their GI symptoms and the severity of their autism. Julie explains some of the ways in which diet is affecting these children, “What happens with wheat and dairy-based foods, is they actually can create long chains of opiates.” she says. And, Julie tells me, that can leak through the gut and affect the brain just like morphine or any other type of opiate.
Julie shares the amazing improvements she’s seen in her patients after making some very simple diet changes. “I had one child. He was three years old. He had no language.” she tells me, “Three months on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, he had 200 words.” Autism is not just a brain disorder, there’s so much more that goes on, rashes, sleep problems, hyperactivity, and more. Julie says, “These are directly related to the biochemistry of the individual.” Julie and I discuss diet changes you can make that might help alleviate some of the symptoms of your child’s autism.
I hope you enjoy this episode and learn a lot from my guests and experts. If you have any questions or stories to tell, please, share them in the comments section. I would love to hear from you.