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A Surprising Cause of Depression: A Leaky Gut

Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Photo credit: iStockPhoto

Every year, there are a few buzzwords that float around the health world like fire spreading through a forest during a drought. This year, those hot topic words unofficially seem to be “Paleo,” “probiotic,” “CrossFit,” and “leaky gut.”

It’s weird to have a favorite of these trendy terms, but I do: it’s leaky gut. Why is it my favorite? Because it looks past one type of food or diet and has nothing to do with weight or shape. It’s about how what you eat can affect your health in ways you’d never imagine.

The more accurate term for describing a leaky gut is “intestinal hyperpermeability” or “increased intestinal permeability.” Let me give you a little background without trying to bore you. Our gut, or intestines, isn’t just a solid tube that carries digested food from our stomachs out of our body; it’s porous, meaning extremely small particles can cross the barrier from inside the intestine to outside. These small objects end up in our blood and are then carried to other parts of our body. This is the basic way we absorb nutrients from what we eat. It’s a good thing. It also allows “good” bacteria and other elements to cross through and help bolster our immune system.

This permeability, or “leakiness,” becomes a problem when too much is allowed to leave the gut for the blood. Leaky gut occurs when there is damage to the lining of the intestines. Large bacteria particles, toxins, and partially digested proteins and fats may leak out of the gut and enter the bloodstream where they don’t belong. This can cause an autoimmune response, meaning the body starts attacking itself, which can lead to all sorts of problems including bloating, food sensitivities, skin rashes, joint problems, and fatigue. Leaky gut may be caused by a number of different things, such as chronic inflammation, excessive alcohol consumption, food allergies, and damage from medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAISDS) and antibiotics.

Lots of research is still being done on exactly what leaky gut is, what causes it, and how you can fix it. Recent research shows that effects of a leaky gut can go well beyond unpleasant stomach problems. A study in Scandinavia revealed that 35% of depressed study subjects showed evidence of leaky gut in blood tests. They hypothesize that the depression is caused by “bacterial translocation,” yet another term for leaky gut that refers specifically to bacteria and microbes crossing the intestinal border. Unfortunately the study doesn’t explain why or how this causes depression but one guess is that it’s due to the autoimmune response and inflammation the misplaced bacteria causes.

Several specific types of bacteria have been connected to brain function so far, including strains such as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and Lactobacilli. H. pylori is more commonly associated with heartburn and stomach ulcers, although an association has also been made between increased levels of H. pylori and impaired cognitive development and Alzheimer’s. Decreased levels of Lactobacilli (a commonly used probiotic, or good bacteria) have been associated with increased stress levels.

A leaky gut may allow the undesired passing of such bacteria into the blood, thus leading to depression, fatigue, and other mood disorders. So while leaky gut may just sound like an unfortunate stomach ailment, it could really be a sign that your diet is harming you in more ways than just your weight.

While leaky gut isn’t a clearly defined diagnosis as of yet, there are unofficial proposed recommendations for helping heal your gut, such as managing stress, exercising, getting adequate sleep, avoiding foods that can damage the intestinal lining like grains and dairy, and increasing foods that prevent inflammation like omega-3s. Supplements like L-glutamine and probiotics, which help with intestinal health, may also be beneficial, although not definitively proven.

Have you heard of leaky gut? Are you surprised that something happening in your intestines can affect your mind and mood?

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