When you think of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, rage, bipolar disorder, addiction and other mental illnesses, do you think of them as mental disorders?
If you do, you are not alone. Most patients and practitioners alike think of them as related to the brain.
I wholeheartedly think differently. Treating mental and emotional disorders within our medical reductionist view serves a giant disservice to the people suffering with such ailments, and it is another example of how our current health care model is failing.
We cannot tie mental disorders into a neat little compartmentalized package and treat them strictly from a mental perspective by psychiatrists and psychologists and with antidepressants.
All mental disorders are a manifestation of a breakdown in function within the whole system. It is a mistake to separate mental illness from the rest of the body, mind and spirit. Our body, mind and spirit work together as a magnificent and miraculous whole, which science has not even begun to understand.
I am going to demonstrate to you one possible connection between our mental health and the health of our digestive system.
If you have heard anything about antidepressants, it is likely you have heard of the SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are believed to allow serotonin — nicknamed the “feel good” neurotransmitter — to have an increased positive emotional effect in the brain.
I say “believed to” because as with most medications, the exact mechanism of action is unknown. But did you know that approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive tract?
Furthermore, serotonin is not only linked to mental disorders, but is also linked to diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
Since serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract, it is not totally out of this world to consider that if you have acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, excess gas/bloating or any other digestive dysfunction, you may also have a mental disorder, or at the very least be experiencing foggy thinking and lack of motivation.
Another connection is the friendly gut microbes that populate our intestinal tract. Science has recently demonstrated that these ever-so-helpful little guys also have the ability to help us “feel good,” likely by stimulating GABA receptors in the brain.
Guess what else stimulates GABA receptors? I will give you a hint: These substances are highly addictive and bad for your health. The answer is barbiturates, benzodiazepines and alcohol.
Furthermore, these gut microbes also produce their own neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin.
So what weakens digestive function and causes imbalances in the microbial culture of the gastrointestinal tract? Let me list the ways in a problem/answer format:
■ Consuming toxic food substances like artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and preservatives/eat foods that come from nature.
■ Taking antibiotics (before you launch on a tirade — of course, antibiotics are sometimes necessary. However they often are not necessary.) which kill not only a potentially harmful bacteria, but also many of the friendly bacteria/use antibacterial herbs, homeopathy and essential oils prescribed by a complementary health practitioner.
■ Worrying and over-thinking/stop worrying and over-thinking. I know, that’s easier said than done. Meditation, life coaching, homeopathy, acupuncture and exercise can all help ease the ruminating mind.
■ Over-nurturing others/learn self-care techniques and value yourself.
■ Not listening to symptoms/honor your body by addressing symptoms when they arise before other imbalances are created.
■ Not receiving health maintenance treatments/consider life coaching, acupuncture, chiropractic and massage to keep your nervous system in check (nerves infiltrate each organ system).
Similar connections affecting mental health can be made between imbalances in every organ system, the environment, bacteria/viruses/other microbes, past traumas and our emotions.
All cellular health, organ health, system health, emotional health, mental health and spiritual health indeed operate as one magnificent system.
When there is a breakdown in the system, targeting one particular part is ineffective and costly. Certainly it is financially costly, but more importantly, it may cost you quality of life or your life altogether.
Do not settle for simple answers. Demand more from yourself and your health care team.
Dr. April L. Schulte-Barclay is a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine and a licensed acupuncturist. She has been practicing in Grand Junction since 2004 and is an expert and leader in integrative and collaborative medicine.