The Digestion-Depression Connection

This article is intended as an opinion piece and is in no way a substitute for medical advice. If you’re struggling with food, mood, diet, or depression, please see your doctor or mental health professional.

Could your digestion cause depression?

Yes, it can.

Stress in your head can create digestive symptoms in your gut… so can stressed guts give you problems with your thoughts, moods, and emotions?

Current research says ‘yes’.

Which might sound scary, especially if you’re an emotional eater. You’re generally eating to try and feel better, and it’s horrible to think that your eating might actually be doing the opposite. But today we’re going to take a look at what might be going on in the connection between mood and food, and what you can do about it.

Could your digestion be causing depression? Yes, it can. Read about how this connection impacts you and how you can use it to feel better.

Depression is a big deal

Nearly everyone I know, including myself, has dealt with depression at some point in their lives, either clinically or sub-clinically.

And it’s a big deal. One study found that when survey data from Canada, Chile, Germany, The Netherlands, and the United States was compiled, up to one-third of all primary care doctor visits included patients with emotional complaints such as anxiety and/or depression.

I know what it’s like to feel the light and joy have been sucked out of life. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s difficult to go through and can be a long, long road to feeling better. So, if you can make some changes to improve your digestive health and thereby improve your mental health, it could make a huge difference.

For example, this really extensive three-part research report explored how “Mental health disorders, depression in particular, have been described as a global epidemic.” They say that research suggests that many different lifestyle and environmental changes could be driving at least some of this epidemic, and that one area of really promising research is the relationship between “the intestinal microbiota (as well as the related functional integrity of the gastrointestinal tract) and mental health.”

This means how and how well your guts are working and digesting, and how well your mental health is functioning.

So let’s look at how gut health can be linked to (and cause changes in) mental health.

Links between depression and digestion

Many researchers are linking gastro-intestinal health and mental health.

Recent research suggests that the development of depression has a lot to do with ‘inflammation’. It’s a very promising research topic, and the idea that localized or whole-body inflammation can cause a whole host of different health problems – including depression – is gradually being accepted. Research suggests that depression can be a mental response to physical inflammation and that a primary cause, or mediator, of this inflammation is how your guts are functioning.

How could this be?

Dr. Emily Deans asserts that the gut and brain communicate via hormones, the immune system, and the nervous system. Similarly, research published in ‘Nature’ links mental health and the gut microbiome. There is strong evidence of links between the amount and type of bacteria in the gut, and a person’s mental health.

To add even more compelling evidence that your gut health can influence your feelings and behaviors, another study from Nature suggests that certain gut bacteria by-products can, via cross-reaction with other stuff in the body, contribute to eating disorders – specifically the “… regulation of feeding and emotion…”

In other words, your emotional eating can be heavily influenced by your gut bacteria (which are, in turn, heavily influenced by your emotional eating).

There is more research in this area if you’re looking to be convinced further. From the research I’ve done, it seems your gut health can have a huge effect on how you feel. This is actually awesome news because it gives you some very controllable and empowering ways to begin working on your own mental health and help yourself regain the mental state you desire.

What to do about it

If your gut health affects your mental health, what can you do to feel better?

On the one hand, it’s important to know that your depression may have different, or multiple, underlying causes. While improving your diet and digestion is a powerful step that will likely help you feel better, it may not be the whole story.

On the other hand, you certainly don’t want to work on the mental side of things and miss some easy physical wins, and therefore continue to suffer. So, what can you do?

Could your digestion be causing depression? Yes, it can. Read about how this connection impacts you and how you can use it to feel better.

1. Probiotics

When I first wrote this article, research on depression and probiotics was very new, and many researchers said you should be cautious about trusting your gut and mental health to probiotics. In the past few years, however, things have come a long way.

For example, these researchers reported that “A number of groups, including our own, have published preliminary human studies showing that orally consumed probiotic strains can indeed influence aspects of mental outlook and cognition.”

While there’s still a lot more work to be done, data suggests that a good quality, multi-strain probiotic (I love this one) could be extremely helpful for depression. The research says that treating gastrointestinal inflammation with probiotics (among other things) may improve depression, with particular success for those with mild to moderate depression.

However, these results are far from universal, and some studies find that probiotics have no effect on mood at all.

So, maybe you’re not into taking pills, or you’d like to wait for the research to be more conclusive, or you want to do more. What else can you do to help your digestion and depression?

To quote my hero, Sean Croxton:

2. “Just Eat Real Food”

The less processed the food you eat is, the more benefit you and your gut will get from it. Vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, eggs, and animal foods will cause less inflammation, and help everything to work as it should.

What can you do, specifically to help you gut health, and therefore help your chances of avoiding, improving, or even beating depression?

  • Relax and slow down when you eat. Eating quickly can cause a stress response throughout your body, which slows down your digestion, upsets your gut bacteria, and leads to inflammation. So, slow it down, enjoy eating, and feel better. 
  • Try some fermented foods. These are naturally probiotic as long as you buy or make the more traditional and unpasteurised kinds. Homemade sauerkraut is particularly easy to make. Be warned that suddenly increasing your intake of these foods can lead to a bit of an upset, so add them in gradually. 
  • Make sure you’re getting enough fat – especially omega 3s. These are really good for calming inflammation and have also been shown to help relieve depression. If you are deficient in essential fatty acids (fats the body has to get from food), you can suffer from fatigue, low mood, and a host of other depression-like symptoms. So, add some salmon, coconut oil, and olive oil to your meals. 
  • Get out into nature and get some sunshine. Nature helps you relax, calming inflammation and just being all around good for you. Even better, getting sunshine, and therefore vitamin D (supplement if you live somewhere without enough sun) is seriously good for your digestion and mood. Being deficient in vitamin D can really impact depression in a bad way, and it’s super easy to fix this one. 

So, there are some simple ways to start improving your gut health with an aim to reduce depression. If you’re serious about beating depression with diet, consider talking with your doctor or health coach about some more comprehensive goals and strategies to get you feeling your best.

Have you ever noticed that a food affects your mood? Have you experienced a connection between your gut and you brain? Tell us about it in the comments.

About Samantha

Hello! I'm Sam and I'm an Eating Psychology Coach. I work with women who struggle with emotional eating and weight loss to develop new strategies and lifestyles so they can stop using food to cope, lose weight, and eat happy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

12 thoughts on “The Digestion-Depression Connection

  • Francois Theberge

    Good article, as always Samantha. One caveat and one suggestion if I may:

    Caveat: Personally, I have some deep reservations about Mercola and his mania of editorializing the data too much, (that’s putting it politely) but the gist of the argument does stand.

    Suggestion: “So, if you don’t fancy potentially wasting your money on probiotics, what can you do?”

    One does not have to waste money: instead, make your own yogurt. In the long run, it ends up costing much less, and one controls what goes in it.

    This last point matters a lot; there is TWICE the amount of refined sugar in a Yoplait yogurt than in an equivalent mass of Lucky Charms cereal. (Source:😉

    Yet, the food industry market their yogurt as “healthy”…as “healthy for our bottom line as a corporation” that is!

    • Samantha Post author

      Hi Francois – thank you for such an awesome comment!
      I know what you mean about Dr Mercola, but after looking at the studies he sites for his points on this topic, I feel like his summaries are valid. Plus, I have to cite my sources 😀

      Yes, I agree that fermented foods are a much cheaper option, and obviously better for you than sugary products. However, the research has yet to properly identify the strains of probiotics that can really help (if indeed they do). So as always, experiment on yourself. If you try making some home-made fermented food and see or feel some benefits, that’s awesome! If not, try something else.

      And as for the food industry… well, I’d say definitely make your own yoghurt!

  • themondaybox

    Lots of information to think about here! My adult daughter has many physical issues with food (insulin resistant, gluten intolerant, allergies) and I have noted emotional swings that could be attributed to the food she eats. It really didn’t occur to me that the probiotics that are good for her gut, could be good for her moods. Thank you for getting me started on learning about this. I’m off to do more research!

    • Samantha Post author

      Thank you so much for this comment – you made my day 🙂 I’m really glad that you’re looking for some holistic ways to help your daughter. It’s likely that if she has the physical issues with food that you mention, that her gut health could use some help. I hope you guys find some answers.

  • Karen

    We’ve been considering for a while that so much of our health happens in the gut. We culture our own kefir and yogurt, and use them to keep the flora active in our systems. Whether it all connects with mental issues, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t doubt it. As with food allergies or sensitivities, we are unique. What may affect one person in one way, may not affect another the same. I’m aware that some foods will cause my body to respond in certain ways – likely state of mind could be affected by foods as well. Fascinating material!

    • Samantha Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Karen! Yes, we all react so differently to foods. I find I even react differently depending on… I have no idea of all the variables! That’s awesome that you’re listening to your own body’s reactions. And yes, we so often see our heads and body/gut as so separate, but it turns out maybe not so much at all.

  • Marjie - Home Again Jiggety-jig!

    I was just researching the relationship of food and bi-polar disorder – this morning. I’m now fascinated with the relationship of gut health to this disorder. I am pinning this to my healthy stuff board! I’ll be personally sharing it as well. Thanks!

    • Samantha Post author

      Thank you for sharing, Marjie! Yes, the links between mental health and food/gut health are really only just starting to be understood. It’s pretty exciting to think of where we could get to with the right kinds of research.

  • Michelle James

    It is amazing the relationship of the foods you eat to the way you act and feel. I truly believe that refined sugar and processed foods are to blame for many bad health issues even beyond what we hear everyday. I love the eat real food and get sunshine part of this post. It is amazing what this can do. Thanks for the post.

    • Samantha Post author

      Thank you, Michelle! I’m totally with you on that one – I find the same thing with refined foods. You think it’s worth it… and then it’s not 🙁
      Eating real food and getting sunshine make me feel like a million bucks, inside and out. I hope it helps you too!

  • Kelly

    Lots of good food for thought here. I’ve used acidophilus to help my digestion and keep the flora of my gut healthy. It does make a difference.