Why Gut Health Matters: Your Mood

What if I told you that the phrase “gut feeling” was less of a metaphor and more of a literal experience? What if I told you that what you eat, how well you absorb and synthesize it, and the effect it has on your gut lining could actually alter your moods and behaviors? Would you think twice before you ate that chili cheese dog that gives you heartburn every single time you eat it? Or that milkshake that leaves you bloated and farting for 3 days? 

gut health and mood disorders

image author Vistawhite, sourced from Wikipedia through Creative Commons

Last week we talked about our gut as “gate keeper,” and how chronic inflammation begets chronic disease. This week, we’re covering gut health and mood. More specifically, how a healthy gut creates a healthy mood(When I say mood, I mean a mood state, not necessarily a fleeting emotion. Negative mood states present as mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Positive mood states present as relaxation, resilience, happiness, and balance.) There’s a pretty remarkable feedback loop between the gut and the brain — the gut-brain axis  and it starts with the enteric nervous system. 

Your Other Brain

Have you ever heard the term “gut brain?” More generally, did you know that our nervous system is comprised of multiple systems that reach far beyond the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord)? Indeed, the nervous system is split into two major components: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system then splits into the autonomic and somatic systems, and part of the autonomic system is what we’ll be talking about today: the enteric nervous system.

Embedded in the lining of our gut, the enteric nervous system plays a crucial role in our health and wellbeing, including our emotional health. It has an estimated 100 million neurons — more neurons than our spinal cord — along with its own neurotransmitters and proteins that have the ability to communicate, learn and even remember. It’s entirely autonomous from the central nervous system, governing about 90% of the messages that operate the gut, but the two systems communicate to ensure that our bodies function properly. Because of this unique independence from the brain in our skulls, the enteric nervous system in our bowels is often called our “second brain.”  

Now that I’ve given you an Anatomy and Physiology speed round, what does it all mean? 

It means your gut does a lot more than extract nutrients from your food and poop out the waste. It has a direct line to the brain, and it’s constantly communicating with it. If your gut is inflamed and leaky, chances are your brain is also inflamed and leaky. You’ve probably heard the term blood-brain barrier; it’s the shield that prevents substances in the blood from flowing freely into the brain, including medications, allergens, antigens, and other inflammatory agents such as excess cortisol or insulin. In short, it’s the brain’s “gate keeper.” Does that sound familiar? We have a blood-gut barrier too, and last week we talked about what happens when that barrier is compromised. Well guess what else is compromised when our gut wall is compromised: our brain wall. 

inflamed gut = overactive immune system = inflamed brain = depression

leaky gut = leaky brain 

How do I know if I have Leaky Brain??

I mentioned very briefly at the end of last week’s post that mood disorders are a sure-fire sign of a leaky gut/brain. In fact I said, “Find me a person with anxiety and no digestive problems, and I’ll find you a fire-breathing dragon with tiny purple wings at your local pet store.” (That might be the first time in history that I quoted myself.) Here’s a short list of indicators that you could have a leaky gut/brain:

  • foggy headed-ness
  • poor concentration
  • poor short-term memory
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • irritability (short fuse)
  • hyperactivity (possibly ADHD)gluten-free

In my first eBook, I shared with you that when I eliminated gluten from my diet, I noticed that I felt more clear-headed and less drowsy and foggy. I noticed not only that redness in my acne-prone skin was reduced, but also that my skin was less sensitive in general. I noticed that I had been waking up every morning with a stuffy nose thinking that was normal.

No, it’s not normal. I had a gluten sensitivity, and it was causing a leaky gut, an overactive immune response, and a leaky brain. When I eliminated gluten and healed my gut with bone broth, all of those symptoms I just mentioned dissipated.

Eating foods that inflame your gut will inflame your brain. A chronic assault on the brain by inflammatory cytokines can eventually cause neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. If you know that you’re allergic to certain foods, and you continue to eat them, you are guaranteeing a disturbance in your brain, whether it’s as mild as poor performance or as serious as a clinical mood disorder or Parkinson’s.

The Pharmacy in Your Gut


There are equal amounts of dopamine in the brain and in the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals reward, motivation, love, and lust, but it’s also responsible for fear, apathy, psychosis, addiction, and ADHD. It’s a powerful chemical that needs to be maintained at proper levels in the body in order to keep that second list of characteristics at bay.

Dopamine also plays a role in our level of satiety and sense of reward when we eat, but we’ll talk about that when we cover weight gain in another part of this series.


95% of the serotonin running through our bodies at any given moment is found and made in the gut, and from there, the brain takes over and converts some of that serotonin into melatonin — the hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. The food we eat supplies our bodies with the fuel (in the form of tryptophan) to create serotonin. When we eat tryptophan-rich food, the small intestine converts it into 5-HTP, which is then converted to serotonin. Problems arise for our mood if one of those two steps is faulty due to … say it with me! … inflammation. If the small intestine is inflamed and the gut is leaky, we cannot properly convert tryptophan into 5-HTP, which means we don’t make enough serotonin.

Not only is serotonin important for our moods, it’s also important for proper gut motility. If you’ve ever taken an SSRI for anxiety or depression, then you might have experienced some of the digestive disturbances that come along with it. 

Melatoninsleep better

This one is actually made in the brain, but its synthesis is entirely dependent on serotonin, most of which is found in the gut. If your brain can’t make melatonin, you won’t get good quality sleep. Poor sleep means that our bodies aren’t able to adequately clear inflammation and damaged tissue as we move through the stages of sleep, which means we wake up in the morning just as inflamed as when we went to bed. And the cycle continues.

Low levels of melatonin are also associated with increased risk of cancer — another chronic disease rooted in inflammation.

How to Make Changes Today

Last week we talked about the role of bacteria in keeping the gut lining intact, and this week we covered mood disorders and neurological issues that could result from leaky gut and leaky brain. Addressing gut health will eventually become part of a medical treatment plan for patients with mood disorders, but in the meantime, here are some things you can do:

Lock the gate! 

Eliminating processed (inflammatory) foods, drinking bone broth, and feeding the good bacteria is a good place to start. Adding more live cultured foods to your diet, like sauerkraut, kefir, kim chee or the wild pickle recipe I shared on Friday, will help keep those good bugs happy and ensure they stick around and reproduce. Not only are healthy gut bacteria crucial in maintaining the gut lining, they are also crucial in making B-Complex. Deficiencies in B vitamins have been linked to depression, low energy, and decreased cognition.

gut health and mood disorders

imaged sourced through Creative Commons from pixababy

Get to bed.

Creating a consistent sleep schedule that follows our circadian rhythm (even on weekends!) will help us get back on track. Doing this not only affects our mood but also the type of bacteria living in the gut, which help perpetuate the good work we’re doing to keep our gut linings sealed.

Studies show that using a morning light box treatment (mimicking the sunrise) is as effective as antidepressants on alleviating depression. Talk to your doctor before starting a light box treatment, as there are some potential side effects that need to be discussed professionally.

Thanksgiving year-round! 

No, I don’t mean you should spend more time watching your family pass out on the couch in a food coma; it’s all about that turkey and stuffing (or sweet potatoes, as it were)!sleepymealEating foods rich in tryptophan is another way to ensure that you have adequate supplies to make serotonin. But the trick is to make sure you follow it up with a small portion of carbohydrates, which help deliver the goods to the right place for conversion. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we don’t eat anything in moderation, so do with that what you will…

Here’s a quick list of foods rich in tryptophan:

  • Egg whites (greatest source)
  • Seaweed
  • Soy nuts
  • Cottage cheese
  • Chicken livers
  • Turkey (the most famous source due to our relaxed state after Thanksgiving dinner)
  • Chicken
  • Tofu
  • Milk 

Hit the Pavement

Research is demonstrating a direct connection between exercise and the growth of good bacteria in the gut. By now, I don’t need to repeat why good bacteria help prevent leaky gut/brain and inflammation. 

The endorphins released in exercise also act as a pain reliever and can provide a sense of euphoria for the exerciser — you’ve heard the term “runner’s high.” Not to mention, it just feels good to move, which can increase our self-esteem. 

running shoes

photo taken by Josiah Mackenzie and sourced through Creative Commons

 Regular exercise has been proven to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Improve sleep (from WebMD)

What’s Next?

On Friday I’ll be sharing a delicious, grain-free breakfast recipe rich in tryptophan. In the meantime, have a look at my 2-part series on sleep to find out how you can get your sleep on track to help keep your gut health in order and heal a leaky brain. 

Why Your iPhone is Ruining Your Sleep

How to Create a Sleep-Conducive Life

In case you missed the first installment of Why Gut Health Matters, check it out here

Sources for this segment of this series include a 6-credit continuing education seminar presented by Merrily Kuhn, RN, CCRN (r), PhD, ND, PhD and the Institute of Brain Potential (bibliography and references can be viewed here), and information from the following articles, journals, and experts:











Chris Kresser: http://chriskresser.com/

Dr. Sara Gottfried: http://www.saragottfriedmd.com/

Your Single Most Important Health Advice – Heal Your Gut

Editor’s Note: For a full series dedicated to gut health entitled “Why Gut Health Matters,” click here.

Recently I was asked a tricky question:

“If you had one single piece of health advice to share for living a healthy lifestyle, what would it be?”

This is a tricky question for a number of reasons, the first and most obvious one being that every individual is different and everyone needs their own tailored solution for achieving a healthy lifestyle. Yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean this question can’t be answered.

I see a question like this one as a personal challenge; how far can I zoom out to accurately answer a question like this one and truly address nearly every single health concern that plagues modern man? Is that even possible? I’d venture to say that yes, it’s possible.

The single most important piece of advice for healthy living is to HEAL YOUR GUT.

gut health healthy gut heat adviceHeal your gut and the rest will follow.

That’s the advice. It’s that simple. You might be thinking that we’re right back where we started, that ways to “heal your gut” are as varied as the individual, or that surely there are tons of diseases that have nothing to do with gut health.

You might be mistaken.

If the gut isn’t working properly, nothing is working properly.

Vitality starts in the gut where we assimilate input from the outside world into resources for inside our bodies. Gut health is crucial for the health of every other system in our bodies. It affects our skin, our immune response, our hormones, our weight, or energy level, our bowel movements (obviously), even our MOOD and PERSONALITY. That’s right, there are studies taking place now that attempt to isolate certain bacteria in the gut responsible for depression and anxiety. That level of detail hasn’t been worked out in the lab yet, but rest assured that altering the human biosphere to address any number of mental health problems is in the not-too-distant future. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself.

5 Facts About Gut Health that Might Surprise You

1. The microbiome in the gut comprises more than 60% of our immune function (some say as much as 75%)?

We have more cells of bacteria in our bodies, and especially in our gut, than we do human cells. 10 times more, in fact. Certain bacteria in our gut represent the body’s ability to fight off invaders, and they actually communicate with those neurons I just mentioned above. When the right bacteria are overtaken by the wrong ones, we start to see both acute and chronic malfunction in our bodies, often accompanied by inflammation and pain.

A healthy gut means a healthy immune system.

2. 95% of serotonin is found in the Enteric Nervous System.

It makes sense that medications aimed at addressing depression through SRIs (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) would disrupt bowel function, considering that so much of it resides in the bowel. Surely it would follow that ensuring the healthy functioning of our second brains would some day enter the scope of practice in mental health care. That day could come very soon indeed!

A healthy gut means a healthy mood.

gut health leaky gut

3. Gut permeability (aka “leaky gut”) is the culprit for a large number of autoimmune diseases and possibly allergies too.

In fact, leaky gut is arguably to blame for the sharp rise of food allergies (gluten, corn, dairy, soy to name the most common).

Debunking PCOS

click my image to learn how I finally cleared my skin!

If your intestinal lining is compromised, you could suffer from something called gut permeability. In layman’s terms, what should stay inside your intestines leaks out into the rest of your body through tiny holes that shouldn’t really be there. The partially digested food that leaks into the gut is seen by the body as a foreign invader, so an immune response occurs– an allergy. 

The causes of gut permeability definitely vary from person to person, but a major factor is inflammation. Inflammation can occur for a number of reasons and is actually implicated in the chronic diseases of the western world – heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. Inflammation in the gut can occur due to over-consumption of inflammatory foods, gut dysbiosis (too much of the wrong kinds of bacteria wreaking havoc in the gut), and too much sugar in the diet (can be a cause of gut dysbiosis). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a good start.

A healthy gut means less allergies and inflammation (often resulting in healthy skin).

4. The gut is often called our “second brain” due to the more than 500 million neurons that reside in the Enteric Nervous System (ENS).

In fact, communication between the gut and the brain is a two-way street, with information going from gut to brain far more often than we ever thought was the case in the past. The term “gut feeling” is a lot less metaphorical and a lot more literal than you might think.

A healthy gut means proper communication between the systems of the body.

gut health leaky gut

5. The bacteria in your gut might determine your cravings AND your ability to gain/lose weight.

Scientific studies are being done to test this hypothesis, and very interesting findings are coming about. We’re learning so much about the communication between the bacteria in our gut and our brains, and while major conclusions haven’t yet been drawn as it relates to common medical practice, this field of research could revolutionize the way we address obesity in medicine.

“…the capacity of bacteria to adapt is such that if it is to their advantage to influence their host preferences for food, they will.” (source)

It’s been shown that “bad” bacteria such as candida thrive on sugar and foods that quickly turn to sugar. When there’s an overgrowth of candida, the bacteria actually cause you to crave those foods that they like to eat! Likewise, when you have “good” bacteria at healthy levels in your gut, you’re more likely to crave a diet that they want to eat – one rich in fiber.

Studies have also shown that when certain bacteria are placed into the intestines of mice, and the mice are fed the same exact diet, those implanted with “bad” bacteria gained weight and those implanted with “good” bacteria lost or stayed the same.

A healthy gut means a healthy weight.

Heal Your Gut, Change Your Life

You might be surprised at some of the easy changes you can make to start improving your gut health today. Of the listed suggestions, for me personally eliminating sugar is by far the most challenging to stick with consistently. It might be a different story for you, but considering how much sugar we as a country consume every day, I’m guessing we might have this in common.

If you truly want to see positive results in your health, this is one of the only times I suggest going cold turkey.

If you completely eliminate sugar for at least 2 weeks, it will have a synergistic effect with the rest of the suggestions on this list. If you do all the things below but remain on a high-sugar diet, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. Sugar is a highly inflammatory food. After your two weeks of cold turkey, test the waters with fresh berries or a small amount of dark chocolate, but pull back for another week or so of you see negative side-effects.

5 Ways to Heal Your Gut:

  1. Eliminate sugar from your diet for two weeks to a month (depending on the severity of your problem) and then slowly reincorporate natural sugars only and very sparingly.
  2. Take a probiotic and eat foods rich in live cultures (kim chee, kefir, sauer kraut, yogurt, kombucha).
  3. Heal the gut lining and reduce/eliminate permeability by drinking bone broth and/or supplementing with l-glutamine.
  4. Eat foods that support the propagation a healthy gut biome – fiber-rich foods that represent every color of the rainbow.
  5. Explore the possibility of food sensitivities through an elimination diet (start with the ones I listed above). By identifying trigger foods, you can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Once your gut is healed, you can attempt to reintroduce the trigger foods watching closely to see if any old symptoms return.

Want to buy pre-made bone broth to jump-start your way to a healthy gut? Check out my very favorite product! 

bone broth acne cure kettle and fire

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