Are You There, Gut? It’s Me, Depression


What does the gut have to do with depression, and how can you convince your gut to lead you in a positive direction? If those are questions on your mind today, you came to the right place. We’ve dealt with all sorts of issues related to wellness and beauty on NMDL, and what’s more beautiful than a healthy body, mind and spirit? And we know, they all go together.

To be clear, I’m not claiming to be an expert on depression – I’m speaking from my own experience, in the hope that it will resonate with others and possibly help someone. I’ve chosen to deal with mental health issues without medication, and mostly without any professional intervention whatsoever, but I’m not suggesting that’s the right path for everyone. Do what you must to be healthy.*

I may be particularly prone to the mental health issues that mirror gut health – I have a long personal and family history of mental illness. But, here’s the thing that I think applies to everyone – depressed or not, medicated or not, in therapy or not. You need a healthy gut to be healthy. From your brain to your heart to your skin, and all stops in between, poor gut function and the associated inappropriate inflammatory responses that result can literally kill you, or at least make you miserable. Let’s make some connections.

Things like a poor diet, overuse of antibiotics, and stress can lead to dysbiosis – an imbalance in gut microorganisms where there are more bad guys than good guys. This can lead to changes in the lining of the gut that make it “leaky.” Things that should not cross the barrier, such as bacteria and undigested food, cross into your blood, producing inappropriate inflammatory responses and leaving you with autoimmune disorders, food allergies, acne, joint pain, and more.   I’ve really oversimplified for the sake of brevity. For additional information, try this website (it explains medical tests as well). Here, and here, you’ll find books that cover leaky gut from hormonal and weight loss perspectives (I don’t care for the way the books are marketed, but I have them both and they do have useful information).

For me, symptoms of leaky gut include bloating, weight gain, feeling generally lousy, skin problems, fuzzy brain, and depression. My digestive symptoms are obvious and appear within hours and may last several days, likewise with skin issues (blemishes, itching, rashes). My depressive symptoms shadow the digestive and skin problems. In addition to experiencing guilt or shame that anyone with food/eating issues might after a “bad food day,” I have a clear change in my thought patterns and ability to function. Without airing every detail, I feel paralyzed. Everything is hard. General chores like keeping the house clean, scooping the litter box, and dealing with other people’s annoying issues shift from being necessities of adult life to seemingly impossible tasks. Things I usually love, like yoga and other exercise, become chores. I don’t feel joy, there’s only crappy, crappier, and crying-heap-on-the-floor. At best, I’m not very efficient at home, and easily thrown by anything that makes life a bit harder. Let me try an example of what this is like. My functioning brain can encounter an unexpected dirty dish in the sink when I’m about to make breakfast, feel minor annoyance at my thoughtless husband and/or son, and either wash it or work around it. My depressed brain can take an extra several hours to get going on my day because of that dirty dish (I know it’s not really about the dish, but that’s not what this post is about). It can get much worse than this – I’ve lived many days barely hanging onto a sliver of sanity. But, here’s the good news: healing my leaky gut significantly improves my depression. I become more functional and my days are more akin to what I imagine people without depression experience, basic ups and downs.

I want to note here that it might not be easy to recognize the symptoms of depression in others or even yourself. I am, usually, practically a superhero at work, and I don’t think there’s anyone that I haven’t specifically told about my depression that would know. I guess my point is, even if you wouldn’t really define yourself as depressed, if you don’t feel “quite right,” it’s possible leaky gut is playing a role.

What can you do to heal a leaky gut?  To keep it simple, I’ll stick to the food perspective…

Avoid these:

  • Conventionally raised animal products
  • Grains (including those that don’t contain gluten)
  • Dairy
  • Excessive sugar

Eat more of these:

  • Sprouted nuts and seeds
  • Fermented foods
  • Raw, non-starchy vegetables

The books I linked above explain the whys behind the foods to eat and those best to avoid. Basically, grass-fed or pastured animal products are better for the gut. Some people are really into grass-fed bone broth for gut healing. I personally avoid animal products altogether (except a bit of local raw honey). If you must eat grains, sprouted will probably do better for you, but if you really want to deal with leaky gut I’d get off them for at least a while. Nuts and seeds can have some of the same issues as grains, so I eat only sprouted. Sprouting deals with the so-called anti-nutrients (lectins, phytates, and digestive enzyme inhibitors). Lectins stimulate inflammation, phytates decrease mineral absorption, and all three may cause leaky gut and dysbiosis.

I know that I’ll be okay if I keep my gut healthy, because I was for several years, until a time of particular stress set me on a path of making less than ideal food choices, and then it spiraled. Within a day, I experience positive effects of eating a gut-healthy diet, a week is better, and I expect if I can be consistent in a few months I’ll be my version of normal. In spite of the fact that I know exactly what I need to do to feel better, it can be hard. I’ve begun supporting myself with additional, simple acts of self-care and seeking help. I’ve added some digestive-supporting superfoods/supplements from Sun Potion to my routine**, and have been going to weekly acupuncture sessions that include digestive support.

Do you, or do you think you might, have leaky gut?  What do you experience, and what helps?

*if you are on medication, don’t go off without professional supervision

**more on this another time

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26 Responses to “Are You There, Gut? It’s Me, Depression”
  1. Brianna says:

    My relationship with food has been a roller coaster ride lately. After several months of horribly painful reoccurring ovarian cysts, I decided on my own to drastically cut back on soy in my diet due to it mimicking estrogen, of which my body had too much. Eradicating soy from my diet as a vegetarian was hard, but I think it can only help me with my hormonal issues.

    I started to fall back on more dairy to supplement myself, which I realized VERY quickly was giving me constant stomach cramps, bloating, and general misery.

    Desperate at that point, I did more research on veganism (which I’ve read about many, many times over the 17 years I’ve been a vegetarian – but I never took the leap…better late than never). For about three weeks now I have stuck to a vegan diet. There was one day at my local cafe that I got a cup of soup and after eating it realized it probably had milk in it, and sure enough, within 15 minutes my stomach was tore up.

    Otherwise, I’ve been feeling infinitely better since eliminating dairy. My stomach doesn’t get bloated and crampy like it once did. It’s amazing. Also, for a while now I’ve really focused on eliminating processed or added sugars in my diet.

    I also deal with depression and, more so, anxiety. I’m not sure what the long-term effects of my new diet will be, but it would be wonderful if it serves as another way of easing my depression/anxiety.

    Mostly, I’ve been eating tons of vegetables, some fruit, nuts, seeds, and occasionally grains like quinoa – but not very much .

    A bit of a long “story” but I am fascinated by our bodies and their holistic relationship with food. I truly believe in the quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

    Thank you for this post!

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you Rebecca for sharing your journey and shining some light on the gut/mind/mental health connection. So important!!!

  3. Carrie says:

    My family suffers from mental illness, and diet certainly plays a role in mood. This is a good post to remind everyone to be conscience of what foods help in the long run and what food don’t. I personally know that oatmeal will make me happy because a bowl of oatmeal + seedy fruit will mean an excellent BM the next morning! Sugar cereal will give me a happy spike, but will let me down a few hours after. That being said, nutrition science is always in flux; there so much quackery out there and very little that anyone knows definitively, beyond what works for them personally. However, any step towards taking control of your own emotional landscape and feeling empowered– weather through exercise, diet change, etc, is a good start in combating emotional problems. No one is happy when they feel out of control.

  4. Jenny says:

    I’ve been waiting for a post about gut health, but wasn’t expecting this angle. Thank you, Rebecca, for your sensitivity and honesty, and sharing your life with us. I’ve been working on recalibrating our diet (myself, my husband, the preschooler and the nearly-toddler) to deal with some minor health issues but moreso just to maximize our health. A friend’s baby developed early tooth decay, so I read up on it and in the process learned a lot and felt motivated to minimize and/or start soaking our grains, beans and nuts, and increase our fermented foods. The beans have been the hardest, thinking ahead to have them soaking long enough, plus the added cooking time (I used to go with canned rather than dried). After being dairy-free for a while on account of the baby, I’m now eating yogurt and making my own kefir (the baby does well with it too), but find that straight milk really bloats me right up. The 1-2 punch of sugar and milk in ice cream is the worst! Trying to incorporate a little change every week has made it more manageable. I found a lot of info at this blog – it’s from the perspective of tooth health, and includes dairy as a healthful food (so long as you don’t have allergies), but I have found it very helpful:

    I was a major nut and seed snacker (probably too much), but requiring the prep time (and oven time – I don’t have a dehydrator) means I just don’t eat them much anymore. Does anybody have any tips? I really miss my walnuts and sunflower seeds.

  5. Rae says:

    I think sharing as you have is brave and commendable. Some people are not fortunate enough to “choose” diet over medication and I just wanted to have that written explicitly somewhere.

    If you “choose” to not be on anti-depressants, that is probably because you are lucky enough to survive without them and mitigate your symptoms in other ways. Speaking personally about my own experiences, I have never been able to successfully come off my medication (and believe me, over the years, I have tried a lot of different things). I just would hate for someone to think that they could change their diet and quit their meds when that is really not possible for some.

  6. Maeve says:

    I was raised eating organics and I assumed in a lot of ways that was enough but recently I’m noticing that there’s more to it. I myself have also had issues with depression and even an eating disorder. While my eating disorder has (for the most part) gotten under control in the last year or so, my depression has gotten worse. My doctor recommended medication for me and it’s been an emotional and physical rollercoaster. Unfortunately, without them I feel like more of a mess so it’s been a necessary evil. Anyway, a cleaner diet is sounding like a great option! Food and mental clarity have both been struggles in my life and for once I want to have control over both! Thank you for the reminder and insight

  7. Chewy says:

    I hope you are successful with keeping up with the changes in your food choices! For myself, I’ve only just realized a few months ago that I need to do several changes in my diet at the same time to see any changes. Before that, I tried staying off bread, but not rice, or not eating dairy but eating some sweets. It seemed too hard to do all the changes together, and the country where I was living made it also difficult to control everything that I was eating due to access. I’ve since moved and have more control over what I eat and have more access to good stuff! But once I got over the feeling of being overwhelmed, it has been pretty easy. I would suggest getting a really good vegetarian cookbook and make modifications as needed.

    I’ve been off of bread and rice for about 3 months now, and I have been taking antifungal supplements (such as for candida). I also take a probiotic twice a day. No processed foods, mostly fresh veggies. I only have yogurt a few times a week, and really limit sugar and yeast-y foods. I’ve been exercising consistently for about 1.5 months. I feel pretty good now, but still have some bloating, moodiness, and fuzzy brain! I don’t know if I had a mild case of depression in addition to these gut difficulties over the last few years before really starting to take care of this, but it’s possible.

    Right now, I’m looking forward to experimenting with flours that I can have, like coconut or buckwheat flour.

  8. Sarah says:

    I think I was reading an article about myself! ;) XoXo thank you for sharing!

  9. Rebecca Bailey says:

    @Brianna, Melissa, Carrie, Jenny, Rae, Maeve, Chewy, Sarah – Thank you all for the supportive comments and for sharing your stories. Whether we are talking depression, or food, or their intersection, it is all very personal. And on the medication aspect, of course that is individual too, and it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. My hope is for people who are struggling have access to information, and health care professionals to be aware of all the possible solutions for mental health, and work with a patient to find the best solution for that individual. And, most of all, I wish for all of you who are struggling to have access to healthy food, and health care in any form you need.

  10. siobhan says:

    This is just tremendous!

  11. therese says:

    Wow great article. You are amazing for allowing us a glimpse into your world and what you have done to make it better. I agree that diet is so integral to our mental health. When you don’t feel well it affects how you think. I have altered my diet and have noticed a huge difference in the whole brain fog thing. I thought it was just getting older.

    Hopefully more people will feel comfortable exploring food triggers and also be tolerant of those of us who have chosen this path. I have found that the biggest offender for me is alcohol. I am so happy without it that I am not sure if I care to have a glass of anything now. I immediately notice the difference in my hormones after one glass.
    i have shared this post with a few friends. Thanks Rebecca.

  12. Jenny says:

    There’s a piece in the NYTImes online (forthcoming in the print magazine) that details research that makes a very compelling link between gut bacterial and mental health issues. You may find it useful, and even encouraging. Have you read Robyn Chutkan’s book Gutbliss? I think it’s been recommended here. I haven’t read it yet, but am curious about it. I admire your commitment to taking care of yourself and being honest.

  13. Victoria says:

    I read this a few times and forwarded it to a friend currently battling some leaky gut issues with her kid. This post is not only brave and raw, but it’s a sneak peek into your very giving nature and I really appreciate your honesty. Depression is such a deep dark secret for many of us, isn’t it? Especially in an industry where we’re all talking about how organic products are better for you and the environment and everyone is expected to have the most flawless skin, no wrinkles in sight and smile all day long while blending products like it’s always so much fun and every day is perfect. I for one have never seen a “depression day” selfie or a green juice named, “get your ass out of bed today lady!” We’re so hyper focused on being happy all the time and sometimes it’s purely organic for us not to be. Natural even. I truly salute you Rebecca for bringing mental health and your way in dealing with it to this blog and your readers. It may not be sexy, but damn if it isn’t an issue we really need to be aware about and sensitive to .In my opinion no different than if one had diabetes or arthritis. Such a vital topic central to our complete and overall health. Thanks to all the commentators that shared their gut issues and knowledge too.

    Mostly though thank you for sharing a personal part of your life with us. I love hearing about your favorite products and always will, but I think hearing about your real life adversities resonates much more because it helps me to accept my own depression not as a character flaw, but as part of my makeup and part of my identity. You rock mamacita!

  14. Candy says:

    I”m a licensed therapist and I’m concerned about the message here. While it’s true that there is a lot of research on the gut and immunity, this research is still new. There are no professional recommendations about treating depression by your gut. Rebecca’s personal experience once again toes the line of promoting what is akin to snake oil.
    Readers please keep an open mind and get professional help if you need it, there is NO stigma to seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist.
    There is also this timely article

  15. Brigid says:

    Why non starchy vegetables? I’m very curious about that and would appreciate a response from anybody!

  16. Brenna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    I also have had a long history of leaky gut problems as well as mental illness (Bipolar actually). I was gluten free on and off for years (my family has had extensive knowledge of celiac for 10 years), but a gluten free diet didn’t fix the problem. My gut and hormones were in such bad shape.

    I found that cutting conventional meats and eating more things like grass fed beef, pastured chicken bone broth, and pastured eggs helped a lot in healing my gut (as well as taking a good probiotic). I actually discovered that eating a lot of raw vegetables was hard for me because my gut system was so damaged that my system couldn’t break them down. After spending a lot of time healing, I’ve been able to slowly add them back in and it’s so relieving to be able to eat raw broccoli again without pain. Healing my leaky gut was SO influential in controlling my depressive swings that are normally massive when the snow and dark comes to Minnesota.

    I completely relate to the inability to get going for the day because of little things that shouldn’t be so hard for the mind to get over.

    I also found that helping my gut helped balance my hormones which has been one of the most beneficial methods to deal with my Bipolar. I don’t experience severe manic or depressive swings any more and if I am careful about my lifestyle, cleaning, cosmetic, and food choices, my hormones are more balanced than ever before and it has been so beneficial for my life. I have been off of pharmaceutical medications (with the supervision of my doctor) for a while now while completely stable.

  17. Rebecca Bailey says:

    @Brigid, the starchy vegetables, just like anything that spikes blood sugar in the body, may trigger dysbiosis/leaky gut. Non-starchy vegetables don’t spike blood sugar and tend to have high nutrient content – the good stuff.

  18. Rebecca Bailey says:

    Thank you @Therese, Jenny, Victoria, Brenna, for your stories and ideas.

  19. Rebecca Bailey says:

    @Candy, I think my intent for the post is clear. Dealing with gut can be done on its own, if appropriate, or in conjunction with other treatments. The sources I linked to are very good about presenting evidence-based information, and our readers tend to be quite savvy about evidence. One source I didn’t end up using in the post, from back in 2008, suggests patients with major depression be tested for inflammatory activity and treated for leaky gut – I haven’t read everything out there, but a PubMed search of “leaky gut depression” brings up plenty of abstracts.

  20. elizabeth says:

    This really hit home…Thank you so much for sharing.

  21. Genya says:

    Thank you so much for your excellent post! I can understand how difficult it is to talk about our health and mental issues, but it’s so great to bring it out! The topic of gut health is so close to my heart and I could not agree with you more how many changes proper food choices can make to how we feel. I started to make better choices trying to sort out my acne (it helped), but I also noticed that my mood improved so much! I used to get cross over such trivial things, but now I just have so much more energy to get over things and don’t get stressed! Btw I would also say that the best food to avoid is all sorts of processed foods, even it says on the packaging that they are healthy, natural, grain free, vegan etc At the end of the day processed food is processed no matter what it contains.

  22. Kristina Holland says:

    For those of you who continue to struggle w/ depression/anxiety whilst being paleo or on a leaky gut diet like GAPS or SCD (essentially focusing on bone broths, fermented foods, etc)…. histamine intolerance could be to blame!! I finally realized that I have some degree of histamine intolerance inasmuch as ‘certain’ probiotics (especially kombucha), chocolate and the like can cause reactions!! Anxiety is one of the main symptoms of histamine intolerance. Hope this helps someone ll!! xoxox

  23. Kristina Holland says:

    And PS: re the histamine intolerance, a leaky gut could be the root cause. Nevertheless, avoiding the histamine rich foods is crucial to stop the cycle at least initially. HTH… xoxox

  24. Alexandra says:

    I feel this! Had all these problems and more until I went on the GAPS diet six months ago. Since then I feel like I’ve gotten my life back (I didn’t even realize I’d lost it), my moods have stabilized and I’ve been consistently happy for longer than I have in more than a decade. Thanks for sharing :)

  25. Olena says:

    Love this article! Leaky gut is real..

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