I was standing, hunched over the kitchen sink, my chest caving in on itself. If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed I was having a heart attack.
Knowing it was “just” an anxiety attack did nothing to alleviate the fear. I had never battled anxiety before—although I’m not exactly someone people characterize as laid back either. For weeks, I battled these episodes before I felt brave enough to ask my doctor if there was something I could do.
As a nutritionist, I’ve spent years helping people balance gut health and other conditions that are strongly influenced by the foods we eat. New research at the time indicated that the gut could have a substantial say in how the brain worked, including mental health, mood, and emotions, but I’d never quite connected it to what I was going through until my doctor suggested that I take a look at my gut health.
More than 15 million Americans battle depression, and more than 40 million deal with anxiety, making it the most common mental disorder in the United States.
Depression and anxiety, research shows, are strongly tied to inflammation, specifically in the gut. Low-grade inflammatory processes can alter how neurotransmitters work, some of which are manufactured in the gut, like serotonin.
Here’s how it works. The nervous system has two major wings: One is in the brain and the other is the enteric nervous system that lives in the gut. These two branches communicate constantly, back and forth, and when one area is struggling, it affects the types of messages being sent.
Said another way, when microbiome (gut) health is damaged or out of balance, it can influence the brain to be moody, sad, depressed, and even anxious. In the same way that feeling stressed about a big event or conflict can cause nausea, sweating, or other symptoms, a “nervous” gut can upset the brain and lead to emotional changes and even altered mental health states.
When we realize that mental health isn’t in a mysterious category of its own, but rather, that it’s connected to our physical body as a whole, it becomes easier to envision a solution. The downside is that virtually everything can tank our gut health integrity: stress, food allergies, antibiotics, other medication side effects, poor dietary choices, lack of physical activity, too little sleep, trauma, and so on.
How I Restored My Gut Health
Thankfully, research in recent years has not only indicated many ways that we can reduce inflammation in the body, but also ways that we can support gut health and keep that brain-gut connection from contributing to our mental health burden.
But as someone who has battled depression and anxiety, I want to be clear: I don’t want to minimize the impact of those diseases in and of themselves. As I stood, paralyzed over my sink, terrified someone was going to come to the door and pronounce me an unfit mother because I was worrying over anything and everything, I realized that the feelings of powerlessness were almost as debilitating as the actual anxiety and depression themselves. While I’d never say that a change of diet can erase all of your mental health or mood struggles, I can say from personal experience that a change of diet can drastically improve mental health.
01. Elimination of foods
Over the course of three months, I eliminated foods or items known to cause inflammation in the body, like sugar, grains, and dairy products.
02. Addition of foods
I also purposefully added anti-inflammatory foods to my daily diet: omega-3 fats like salmon and cod, monounsaturated fats like avocados, and antioxidants like vegetables and fruits. I also ate plenty of protein.
03. Building up nutrients
Gut health can be supported, but also restored, by consuming nutrients that allow intestinal tissues to regenerate. Specifically, I utilized two key nutrients: the amino acid glutamine, which I took in capsule form, and grass-fed collagen, which I took in powder form.
Glutamine is an essential amino acid that the body can make, but which we can become low in during times of stress or injury. Glutamine is vital for maintaining the structural integrity of the gut walls, and if they’ve been compromised, it goes to work patching holes.
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body, and it gives structure to things like hair, skin, and other tissues. It’s also a major component of gut tissue. When the gut experiences damage from inflammation, stress, or disease, collagen can go to work restoring normal function.
I also started regularly taking curcumin, which is the active ingredient in turmeric. Because it’s a superfood with anti-inflammatory benefits, it can work as a natural form of anti-depressant by neutralizing systemic inflammation, specifically in the gut and brain.
Because I was determined to annihilate the source of my anxiety attacks, I also started seeing an acupuncturist. Research shows that acupuncture can help address inflammation, particularly that associated with depression.
After three months of collagen in my morning coffee, my anti-inflammatory diet, and swallowing capsules a few times a day, plus my weekly acupuncture sessions, I realized one day while I washing bottles that it had been… days? A week? Since my last panic attack. It wasn’t exactly a sudden difference, but after the first week of my anti-anxiety protocol, I noticed they were less severe. After a few weeks, they were shorter. I stopped counting moments between panic attacks and started living life more freely.
While I still occasionally have anxiety that builds in response to lack of sleep or outside stressors, I’ve been able to alter the baseline of my mental health by bolstering my gut. It might seem counterintuitive, to focus on something that isn’t seemingly connected to the brain at all. But that’s where we get lost sometimes, when we isolate aspects of our wellness, focusing so heavily on the symptom that we miss some aspect of the cause.
When one part is suffering, the whole body can show symptoms, and likewise, symptoms in one area don’t mean that other areas are functioning smoothly. We are whole beings, not splintered components haphazardly strung together, so caring for our gut health and other aspects of wellness can be a proactive way of caring for our mental health, too.