Depression and Digestion: What’s the Connection?

Many of us know from experience that there is some kind of connection between our moods and our stomachs. We get butterflies in our stomachs before that big test or job interview, we are sickened by a shocking report on the news, or we are too excited to eat on a special day. One way or another, most of us have noticed that our mood affects our digestion.

But it can be a surprise to learn that our digestion can affect our mood, and not in a small way. Studies in publications ranging from the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry to Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica have found that digestive problems are often associated with a range of affective disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

A researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine even found that digestive problems early in life are associated with depression later on.

Traditionally, the connection between depression and digestive problems was assumed to be in the mind to body direction. Health care providers assumed that anxiety caused digestive problems.

In recent years, however, some digestive issues have been identified as possible causes of anxiety and depression:

  • Inflammation of the digestive organs might show up in some people as depression, some researchers suggest. This kind of inflammation is also associated with other kinds of disorders, such as heart disease. Identifying the problem early, perhaps because of symptoms of depression, could be beneficial for sufferers.
  • “Leaky gut” is a condition in which bacteria that normally stays within the digestive system leaks into the bloodstream. Some scientists suggest that these toxins could worsen depression.
  • Some research suggests that the digestion-depression connection could be a vicious circle: depression contribute to digestive troubles, which contribute to depression, which contributes to digestive troubles… and so on.

While the connection between the brain and the gut aren’t completely clear, there is some evidence that doing things that are good for your stomach can also be good for your mood.

Testing for food allergies has been suggested in some cases. Reducing the use of alcohol, sugar, and processed foods in general may help. Some studies have shown that probiotics have positive effects on depression in some cases. Many of the studies so far have focused on the effects in animals, so while researchers have been able to cause mice to spend more time hanging out in dark parts of their mazes instead of swimming happily with other laboratory mice and then to make them feel more like taking a swim, things are not yet so clear for humans. It is clear that there is a connection between depression and digestion, though.

Ask your health care provider for suggestions for your particular needs.