In college, I sought out a gastroenterologist for my lifelong tummy troubles that seemed to be getting worse. We did a billion tests and didn’t find anything wrong, and at the end of the day my doctor gave me a prescription for antidepressants.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably the type of person who sees that as a huge red flag. And it is, good job, but in this case, my doctor wasn’t writing me off as crazy. My stomach problems were all in my head. And my head problems were all in my stomach. Well, not all. But you get the play on words.
In the midst of this global pandemic, civil unrest, and general horror that is 2020, it seems like a good time to talk about this. All of us are feeling the stress. All of us are experiencing some level of trauma. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started spending a lot more time in the bathroom (and, unfortunately, using a lot more TP).
Did you know that serotonin, a natural chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness and wellbeing, is actually located in your gut? About 90% of it, anyway. When people talk about “chemical imbalance” and mental health, you may picture these chemicals as being in your actual brain, when in reality these chemicals that contribute to mood and emotions are coursing through your entire body. It’s unfortunate that most people view mental health as separate from bodily health. I also don’t understand why dentists and eye doctors are so far removed as to have their own type of health insurance, but that’s a whole other blog post.
The point is that it’s important to take a holistic view of your health. The answer to your problems may not be where you think.
In my case, I was suffering from an at-the-time-undiagnosed bipolar disorder. And the biggest, most disruptive symptom at that time was stomach problems. Sometimes my appetite would just vanish. Other times I would feel hungry at normal times, then full after only a couple of bites. And worst of all, bowel issues. Sometimes it was constipation. Other times, the opposite. But I would be in the bathroom for upwards of 30 minutes at a time, which is a real problem when you’re at work. And yes, the depression, anxiety, and manic episodes were there too, but I can honestly say that stuff seemed mild in comparison.
My journey to that diagnosis was 8 years long, a story too long to tell here. Antidepressants didn’t fix the problem, but they were the start. The most important thing to come from that experience with that gastroenterologist was learning the connection between my mind and my gut. Now I know that when every food on this earth sounds unappealing, I should take an inventory of my emotional health. Yes, eating healthier foods and taking vitamins help some, but usually the digestive issues don’t go away until my mental state becomes balanced.
Sometimes that means a change of medication.
Other times it means giving myself a break, taking a day or two off. That extra fluffy kind of self care.
Like I mentioned, we’re currently all living under higher than usual stress levels. Maybe you’re not having toilet trouble, but you have noticed your mood is down. Maybe you feel unmotivated. Maybe you’re really suffering from the loneliness of quarantine life. Maybe you feel constantly on edge or restless. Maybe your sleep schedule is all over the place.
Now it’s time for the disclaimer: I’m not a health professional in any capacity. Anything written here should not be construed as medical advice. And mental health is serious and can be deadly.
IF YOU ARE HAVING THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE OR SELF-HARM, PLEASE PLEASE SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP. It’s as easy as texting “HOME” to 741741 to talk to someone for free and get the help you need.
NONE of what I’m about to say is a replacement for therapy or medication.
These are just some things you can do to help your overall mood and sense of well-being, in addition to working with a professional to stay healthy in mind and body.
Knowing that 90% of the serotonin you need lives in your gut, we can do a lot to treat the symptoms of depression and anxiety. The first is probably the most obvious and least helpful: eat healthy. When you have no appetite, this can be very hard. And taking a daily vitamin supplement is a great way to make sure you get some nutrients if you’re having trouble eating enough.
Focus on foods that promote bowel health. I know talking about bowels is probably doing nothing for your already skittish appetite, but this is important! You probably know that you need to be eating fiber, but did you know there are two kinds of fiber?
If you’re having diarrhea or loose, watery bowel movements, you’re going to want soluble fiber– that means fiber that absorbs water. Think oatmeal. This is going to really help you clear everything out.
If you’re constipated or feel heavy and full, you want insoluble fiber. This means roughage: salad and fruits. This is going to help things get moving.
And of course, we can’t talk about good poops without talking about Jamie Lee Curtis.
Jamie Lee Curtis wants you to feel better, both mentally and physically. You can see it in her eyes.
You probably know you have bacteria growing in your gut. And that’s a good thing! That bacteria helps keep you healthy and happy. And if the bacteria in your gut is flourishing, it’s better at converting those amino acids into sweet, sweet serotonin. And do you know what makes for a flourishing bacteria community in your gut? Probiotics!
Probiotics: they are (kind of) the opposite of antibiotics. Mostly in the sense that if you’ve been on antibiotics recently, you probably have very sad/dead gut bacteria. But even if you haven’t taken antibiotics recently, there are lots of reasons your gut bacteria may be slacking on the job when it comes to producing serotonin. The solution? Probiotics.
I actually do eat Activia yogurt and if you like yogurt, it’s a great way for just getting daily probiotics. But if you’ve been on antibiotics or you don’t like yogurt and you need some probiotics STAT, you can just buy a supplement. You can find them at any grocery store and they aren’t very expensive. My favorite are the Pearls. They’re tiny, easy to take, and they protect the probiotics from your digestive fluids until they can make it all the way to your gut.
By the way, this blog post is not sponsored by pearls or Jamie Lee Curtis which is frankly, a huge bummer. But I do actually use these products and recommend them.
So yeah. Eating healthy, focusing on fiber and antibiotics, is a great way to take care of both your digestive and mental health. And during this time of high stress, it’s really important to do all you can for your emotional well-being. So get yourself a yogurt and know that serotonin is on the way!