Young woman with mild depression

Are digestion and mild depression linked?

If you’re suffering from mild depression, improving your digestion could be key to boosting your frame of mind.

We’re all familiar with the feeling of having “butterflies” in our stomachs. But have you ever thought about what this actually means? Essentially, this everyday metaphor demonstrates the link between our gut and our brain.

In the medical world, this is called the gut-brain axis – a two-way communication link between the central nervous system and our ‘enteric’ nervous system which governs our intestinal tract. Put simply, the gut-brain axis links the thinking and feeling centres of the brain with the function of your gut.

The link between your digestion and mood

In particular, there’s a strong link between digestive health and how you feel. Researchers have found that irritation in the digestive system may send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes.

For many years, doctors and researchers believed anxiety and mild depression contributed to digestive problems. However, recent studies suggest it could be the other way round: rather than being contributing factors, mood disorders might in fact be symptoms of digestive problems.

Digestive issues are common

Digestion is the process of turning food and liquid into nutrients which the body uses to keep us healthy.

Many people struggle with digestive issues which could be down to illness, or food and lifestyle choices. Dr Anton Emmanuel, a consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital, estimates that 40% of us have at least one digestive symptom at any given time.

This means that 4 in 10 of us experience uncomfortable, inconvenient symptoms such as stomach ache, constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion and heartburn on a pretty regular basis, which could, in turn, be impacting our mood.

Simple lifestyle changes can improve digestion

The digestive system can be rather sensitive. Lifestyle habits, including what you eat and drink, can all have a big effect on digestion.

Of course, we’re all unique and some foods, drinks and lifestyle factors will affect some more than others. So if mild depression is getting you down, focusing on improving your digestive health may be a great place to start.

To assess whether there are any lifestyle adjustments you could make, here are eight questions you should ask yourself:

Am I getting enough fibre?

Fibre helps to move waste smoothly through the digestive system. If you don’t get enough, you may experience painful symptoms such as constipation.

In the UK, it’s recommended that adults should consume around 30g of fibre each day. In reality, most British adults average just 18g per day.

Fibre-rich foods include fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grain carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, oats and wholewheat pasta.

Am I drinking enough fluids?

Fibre relies on water to do its job. So if you’re not drinking enough, the fibre you are consuming won’t be able to fulfil its vital digestive role.

A straightforward way to ensure you’re consuming enough fluids is to make sure you drink 8 glasses of water a day. Try keeping a bottle on your desk or to hand in the fridge.

Am I drinking the right fluids?

Ensuring you’re drinking the right types of fluids is also important. Caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee and some fizzy drinks affect digestion by increasing levels of acid in the stomach.

Swapping drinks which contain caffeine for caffeine-free alternatives may have a positive impact on your digestion and your mood.

Is my diet too fatty?

You may notice that when you eat a lot of greasy or fried food, your tummy issues flare-up. This is because fat is difficult for the body to digest.

If you’re overindulging in fatty food, your digestion – and therefore your mental health – may pay the price. NHS guidelines advise limiting fat intake to 70g per day.

Does spicy food trigger my symptoms?

Aside from scorching-hot chilli, common ingredients such as garlic and onion also fall into the ‘spicy’ food category and are actually some of the worst offenders when it comes to contributing to digestive problems.

If you experience heartburn, diarrhoea or stomach pain after eating something spicy, try cutting back on these and see if things improve.

Could probiotics help?

Probiotics are often called ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria as they help us to stay healthy. While probiotics are naturally present in our digestive systems, if you’re looking for ways to improve digestion, supplementing your diet with extra probiotics may be worth a try.

Live natural yoghurt contains probiotics, or you can take probiotic health supplements.

Am I eating too late?

If you find that you mainly have digestive problems in the evening, try having your evening meal a bit earlier.

Gravity keeps food moving in the right direction and thus aids digestion. So if you’re eating right before bedtime, your digestive system may struggle.

Am I getting enough exercise?

Exercise is one of the best ways to ensure your digestive system is running efficiently. One study showed moderate exercise boosted gut transition time by almost 30%.

Top Tip: Keep a diary

Everybody’s different and so pinpointing exactly which foods or lifestyle choices are contributing to our digestive problems can be challenging. If you’re struggling to get to the bottom of your tummy trouble, keeping a diary could help.

Record your lifestyle habits including everything you eat and note down any digestive symptoms as well as swings in your mood. Over time, you may start to notice a pattern, helping you to identify any triggers.

Once you’ve established what provokes your digestive problems, try reducing or eliminating these variables from your diet or lifestyle. In time, hopefully, you’ll see a positive impact on your mood.

Try Milk Thistle to ease digestive problems

Milk Thistle is a traditional herbal medicine used to relieve the symptoms associated with occasional overindulgence of food and drink, such as indigestion and upset stomach and can be taken daily to help support a healthy digestive system.

HRI Milk Thistle contains the active ingredient Silybum Marianum, derived from the fruits of the milk thistle plant. It is THR-certified and approved, a guarantee of safety and quality.

So why not focus on looking after your digestion for a few weeks and see if your mild depression eases?

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