How Better Digestion Could Be The Key To Improving Your Mental Health
When you look at the factors that affect your mental wellbeing, you might be surprised to learn how many of them are influenced by your digestion. There are 3 essential steps, that don’t rely on supplements or medications, to improve your mental health for the long-term.
In last week’s blog we got the conversation started about how you might manage your mental health. As part of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 we looked at the factors which affect your mental well-being and good mood, and came to the surprising observation that pregnancy and caring for a growing family might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This was a different conversation about mental wellbeing which extended beyond the usual go-to medications and therapeutics, such as antidepressants, vitamin D, fish oils or protein-rich foods. They all tie in with the ‘from-the-neck-up’ approach to mental wellness, but instead we took a step back and looked down – all the way down to digestive function and the connection between the gut and brain.
What was revealed may have come as a surprise. There are many factors which affect your mood states and many of those are overlooked by the typical medical model of care. Your brain chemistry and neurotransmitter imbalances obviously play a part – which is why many people find anti-depressant or amino acid therapies can be effective for addressing false or altered moods. However, only a small part of your mental-health story was being told if you neglected to consider your digestive health.
Intestinal permeability, inflammation, infection, an imbalanced microbiome and insufficient methylation were some of the underlying factors that were typically involved in altered mood states. As for mum’s state of mind I proposed that the contribution of old habits, new lifestyle challenges (such as disturbed sleep, more stress, food cravings and food avoidances), as well as a potential depletion of nutrients, were enough to create the perfect ‘poor-mental-health storm’. It appeared that by stacking up these types of challenges, mums were pushed to a point where this negatively affected their mental health.
You can read the full blog by following this link here.
Improving The 5 Factors Which
Impact Your Mental Health
This week we’ll continue from this point and consider what you might do in a situation like this. As it’s currently Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, this topic may already be on your mind. Let’s take a look at some ways you might improve your mental health in the long-term by targeting the often overlooked factors which have a huge influence.
Notice the words LONG-TERM.
If you find your levels of anxiety, overwhelm, confusion or depression are unbearable, then ‘slow and steady’ is most likely not the type of approach that you need! In fact, I would hate for anyone to feel that their only option was to take things slowly. In fact, as a result of the changes to lifestyles, working patterns and relationships caused by living through the COVID pandemic, increasing numbers of people are concerned about their mental wellbeing, and fear that their mental health in lockdown has started to decline.
In these circumstances, I’d hope you would be heading to your GP, to connect with a service, counsellor, or therapist who could test your amino acid metabolites and recommend appropriate amino-acid therapies and supplements. These are the types of quick-acting solutions which may be most effective in the short-term.
So it’s come to your attention that there are quite a few factors which can affect your mood and mental health. These include inflammation, infections, how well you do methylation, an imbalance in your gut bacteria, the degree of permeability in your intestines, how well you sleep.
In the never-ending story of wanting things to be better IMMEDIATELY, I bet it would be really tempting to have a go and try to improve them all at once. To change one or two things about the way you eat and include a stack of supplements – high dose omega-3 oils for inflammation; a high strength probiotic to regain microbial balance; digestive enzymes to increase your nutrient absorption; maybe a sprinkle of glutamine; CBD and magnesium for improved sleep; and some methylated B vitamins to improve methylation.
However, while such efforts to improve your mental health would be well intended , such a supplement-cocktail could leave you feeling decidedly worse.
Why Supplements Can Make You Feel Crap
For as long as I remember practising, I’ve heard people talking about the ‘healing crisis’ where you feel crap before you start to feel better. If this happens you could just push on through, and hope it doesn’t take too long to get to the other side.
But here’s the thing.
This crisis isn’t necesarily good, it probably means you’re putting your body under too much pressure and might need to take a step back.
For example, it’s possible that a full dose of a methylated B vitamin or methylated multinutrient makes you feel awful – anxious, unable to sleep, more pain in your joints. What could this be about?
Under normal circumstances you make methyl groups each day, let’s say 100, and these gets spread throughout the body – 65 would go to the brain, perhaps 10 to the thyroid, 15 to the liver for detoxification processes, the last 10 to the cells for cellular detoxification. But what if you’ve only being making 60 methyl groups each day? If you’ve gone for a really long period without making enough methyl groups, then while the brain still gets its majority supply all the other organs suffer. For instance your liver gets 7 instead of 15, the thyroid a meagre 5. As a consequence they down regulate their activities – a little less detox and a little less thyroid hormone gets produced.
What happens when you suddenly have an abundance of methyl groups, all supplied by your daily supplement? Your body thinks ‘yippee!!’ and revs up all its metabolic processes. You make glutathione, your liver cracks on and a huge load of toxins get packaged up and ready to be eliminated. One thing you may have failed to take account of is the frequency that you urinate and defecate. If you seldom drink water and go to the loo every other day, where will these pre-packaged toxins go? When they’re not eliminated in a timely fashion, they tend to be reabsorbed in the bowel.
This reabsorption and recirculation of unexcreted toxins may the reason why you feel particularly rubbish when you introduce a new supplement.
Is it better to focus on what you eat instead? If you follow the best diet for your digestion and target these 5 factors can you boost your mental health?
You could compile a list of all the best foods and follow an anti-inflammatory diet, a gut-repair diet, a high-fibre diet or a probiotic diet. Once again, while these sound pretty nifty they may not work as well as you hoped.
This is really where the time factor comes into play, and why changing your diet to improve your mood can benefit from taking a slower approach.
It’s unlikely that there is one single food which is 100% guaranteed to satisfy and benefit every single one. For instance, you might think “I want to support my gut health and have lots of good bacteria” and decide to eat lots of fermented and prebiotic foods. And while some of these items like artichoke, sauerkraut, chicory, garlic will be high on the ‘best foods for your gut’ list, they might give you a lot of digestive discomfort and cause you to bloat. Clearly, for you, this couldn’t be a healthy diet, so you’d experiment with other types of foods.
This is the secret to the slow and steady approach to improving your mental health in the long term. It’s experimentation, and figuring out what works best for your body. This could mean you pick one type of diet, introduce new foods one by one and see what happens for you. There will be some which cause interference to your well-being. You might feel them in your intestines as bloating, discomfort or flatulence; or you might experience migraines, fuzzy head, anxiety or pain in your joints. However, once you’ve identified them you can remove them for the time being knowing that you have full control of the decision as to when or if you’ll eat them again.
First Steps For Better Mental Health:
Are All Your Channels Open?
So if you’re working on slowly changing your diet and waiting before you introduce supplements, what changes can you start with right now to help improve your mental wellbeing in the long-term?
Your main focus would be to open up your drainage and elimination pathways – basically removing the barriers that interfere with how often you pee, poo and sweat. This is a useful starting point to support the slower dietary changes and will help you prepare for the time when you’re ready to introduce supplements.
– ONE –
When you’re drinking enough water throughout the day you’ll want to urinate every 1 – 2 hours. The fact that this can be inconvenient – can you take breaks at work, do you have a long way to travel – can be enough to stop you from drinking sufficient amounts.
However, your kidneys remove excess water, cellular acids and other wastes which you then excrete in your urine. Impeding this process by not drinking enough can impact how your muscles, nerves and other tissues work.
2 ideas to help you drink more water
I’ve found that setting regular phone reminders can act as a useful prompt which can be useful if you find you’re thirsty but never quite get round to picking up that glass.
Alternatively using an app, like Plant Nanny, can add some fun and a small challenge to this daily neccesity.
– TWO –
The liver has many roles in the body – storing sugar as glycogen and balancing energy metabolism, breaking down damaged red blood cells, creating blood-clotting proteins, creating immune system factors, breaking down proteins, and producing bile for digesting fats. However, it’s ability to process and neutralise toxins, as well as hormones and medications is the factor to focus on. Having daily bowel movements is the best way to support all of your liver’s hard work. As you’ll remember from earlier paragraphs on potential issues which arise when taking supplements, there’s no advantage to be gained from giving your body a load that it’s not able to handle.
Constipation can be caused by you holding everything in when you should have a bowel movement. In fact, this may be pretty common – I can think of 2 people who NEVER go to the loo when they’re out. Being stressed, lack of exercise and dehydration can make you blocked up. Eating excess dairy or a low fibre diet can also be culprits.
1 idea to help you go to the loo more frequently
According to the makers of Squatty Potty someyimes it’s all down to the angle. Adopting a squatting stance, instead of sitting, could encourage you to open your bowels.
– THREE –
While you already know about sweating as a mechanism for cooling you down, it also seems to have a role in the elimination of some toxins. One study measured heavy metals in both urine and sweat, and found that participants who exercised regularly had lower levels than those who didn’t. 
Steam showers or sauna, with their intermittent heat and washing away of impurities may be more effective than sweating in the sun or from exercise. With the potential exposure to toxins and pollutants a staple of everyday life – hormones, preservatives, microplastics, pesticides, antibiotics – a regular trip to a steam room may have even more appeal.
Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 has turned the light on the growing issue of mental health and how you cope with feelings which affect how you experience your day. When dealing with unbearable feelings or false moods, the usual response is to use supplements, medications, and therapies. These can have brilliant short-term results but they may fail to address other factors which have a huge impact on mental wellbeing. Our understanding of the gut-brain connection suggests that your digestive function can have a huge impact, with metabolic processes like inflammation and methylation, infections, gut permeability and dysbiosis all playing a role. These may be addressed with diet and supplements, but it’s a good idea to take things slowly and figure out which types of food, diet, and supplements work best for you. Meanwhile, what you don’t want to be is all bunged up, as this can make all your good work have a peculiar effect on your body and how you feel. It’s challenging when your best efforts make you feel actively unwell. So, your best first steps would be to open the channels – to urinate frequently, open your bowel daily and occasionally work up a sweat. From there you’ll be on the right track to minimise negative digestive factors and gain better mental health.
References Sheng et al, (2016) Monitoring of heavy metal levels in the major rivers and in residents’ blood in Zhenjiang City, China, and assessment of heavy metal elimination via urine and sweat in humans.
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