The Mind Gut Connection

I've talked a little bit about my mental health on this blog. I have a history of anxiety and depression that has become very manageable via lifestyle and diet. As a teen, I was on prescription medication and re-introduced some of them in my early 30's when I needed some help. Chemical intervention has periodically helped me see solutions more clearly and be able to function through times when my biological chemistry is off.

I've learned on my journey, a lot about the science behind the mind-gut connection and why it was so important for me to get my gut healthy again. 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, if it's healthy. I've seen first hand the repercussions of an unhealthy gut when I indulge in food and lifestyle choices that don't serve me. My symptoms are heavy on the mental and emotional side with some bloating, pain and weight gain on the physical side.

A theme that's been popping up in my life recently has been OCD. I've been acutely aware of my tendencies for skin picking and nail/cuticle biting flaring up around times of stress and deviations from "my protocol". I'm familiar with depression and anxiety flaring up around eating foods I know I'm reactive to. Experiencing heart palpitations, skin flushing, lack of patience and being moody is nothing new after a period of indulgence. Conversely, it's also no surprise that when i'm in the self-care "zone", that I feel more at peace, am able to withstand stressful situations without experiencing anxiety and even wake up joyful.

I'm in a constant state of checking in and reflection these days. I check in with myself before and after eating. This really helps me make sure that I'm giving my body what it needs and not something I'm using to distract or numb myself.  It also means that I can indulge in a positive way and ideally prevent repercussions from poorly timed cravings.

That being said, I'm not a robot. While I do try to avoid serious (for me) offenders like grains, indulging does mean having something that is likely to have some sort of negative effect on my system. So, in my reflection this week I wanted to share what I've noticed about myself.

I have always been a nail biter and skin picker. When I had acne, i would pick my face, compulsively and without awareness and without being able to stop until i "got" what i was going for. Picking leads to scarring and long enduring red marks. The feeling was one of control and relief. The same goes for nail picking and biting, it always felt like I just "needed to get the one hangnail/piece of cuticle/dry skin" as if it were an imperfection I could fix. My hands and face, red, sore and bleeding would not be enough get me to stop. 

As an adult, I try and resist these urges. I get acrylics if my nails break. I travel with lotion so my cuticles don't get dry enough to pick. (And if they do, i still mess with them.) When I am out of balance, either from stress, lack of sleep, lifestyle or food, these habits come back in full force. (Of course, weather is no help for hands that tend to dry out.) When my defenses are low, these habits emerge and with them comes my old, defenseless sense of self. How embarrassing it is to have thumbs that look like I stuck them in a Vitamix, or parts of my scalp that are nearly bald from the scratching at an old scab. I never thought of myself as having OCD, not in any real way. Only in the way that getting things right and that having acute attention to detail at work makes you a rockstar, did I associate with obsession. Obsession to be awesome! ;) But I do see, now, the obsessive tendencies in these behaviors and even now realize them in my old work habits. (emails causing anxiety, perfectionist tendencies, wrapping up self worth in the job I was doing.)

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that if you change your diet and get enough sleep that it would cure all occurrences of depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD/ADD etc. I'm just sharing that in my case, it made a huge difference (almost all the difference) in the presentation of my genetic predisposition to be "mentally out out of order" when my body is out of whack. I was able to function with coping mechanisms, off of pharmaceutical medication, when I made changes to my life/diet that healed my gut (and therefore affected my brain chemistry.)

Gut Health literally affects brain chemistry. Eating what is right for me and practicing self care, helps me maintain a state of mental wellness. What does that mean (for me: keto food, 8.5+ hours of sleep a night on a consistent schedule, low alcohol consumption, self examination and stress management practice).

When friends or family members mention their mental distress I always encourage them to look at what they're eating to see how their gut health may be affecting their mental health and mood. Remember, something you've eaten for a long time without noticing symptoms doesn't necessarily mean that you are tolerating that without consequences. The body will adapt and adjust to the environment you create for it. An elimination diet is a sure way (and the only gold standard, not any "allergy test") to reset what you know you can tolerate and serves your body best. I only now experience some symptoms like heartburn and intestinal pain/cramping, now that I've removed foods and then re-introduced them. Only once my body had time to experience relief did I notice the discomfort I was causing myself.

I've been reading more lately about the gut as your second brain, it's fascinating the science that continues to roll in. The microbiome is proving to control so much more about our emotional and chemical states than we previously ever understood.

Here are some links and books about the Brain-Gut connection if you want to learn more: