Depression, food, and the gut

I eat my pain. I eat my stress. I eat my sadness. I eat, gain weight, and eat my self-esteem.

Food is far more than a source of physical sustenance, and the human digestive system reflects that truth. Feeling things in our gut is not simply a metaphor; the bacteria in the digestive system interact with the brain. Hippocrates is purported to have observed that “all disease begins in the gut,” and it appears that the scientific method is beginning to catch up with that idea. The way I frame it is that the mind is not wholly housed in the brain. Instead, it’s comprised of all of the thinking and feeling and experiencing that all parts of the body undergo. The fact that the brain and the eyes—which captivate our sense of understanding and self, when they are working—are both in the head makes it easier to imagine that the mind is, too.

Some very powerful parts of the mind are not in the head much at all. Specifically, I’m talking about emotions. The reason that we can control our emotions by using breathing and the tightening of muscles is because the emotions themselves are housed largely the muscles that power our physical aspect. Emotions are the body’s physical response to stimulus such as injury, danger, hunger, arousal, affection, loss, and abundance. They arose to help us navigate a dangerous world, and to be effective they cause reactions in the body, often before the brain receives word of what’s going on. I might have thought that “gut feelings” were largely a muscular reaction, but for this research into bacteria. Given that there are 1.3 bacterial cells for every human cell in the body, this shouldn’t be surprising. Our companions understand the world in different ways than our brains, and might even make up part of our mind if we are essentially a colony. The chemicals they produce can indeed influence mood, for one thing; the wrong mix of bacteria can release a mix that impacts what chemicals get churned out in our own brains. That’s why eating yogurt or sauerkraut can actually have anti-depressive effects. I don’t care for either of these foods, and I think it might be interesting to study food preferences in people experiencing depression to see if the messages from the gut biome are providing good advice on how to care for ourselves.

Certainly our relationship with food is more complex than simply obtaining energy. We don’t call them “comfort foods” for nothing! Our emotional state is closely linked to hunger and nutrition. It’s not a good idea to shop for food while hungry, or you might come home with a lot of calories instead of ways to provide nutrition. Stomach rumblings are connected to bad mood. What we eat can absolutely influence how we act, too: loading up on carbohydrates and other forms of sugar is extremely satisfying in the short term, but that’s a craving that feeds depression even as it fills the stomach. There are researchers who focus on nothing but nutritional psychiatry, trying to unlock the relationship between diet and mental health. This is only a surprise, I believe, because we have chosen in our language to separate the whole self into “mind” and “body,” suggesting that something which begins in one of those arbitrary areas can only be treated in that same area. One person I interviewed for my upcoming book Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic & Ritual, Kari Tauring, blames Descartes for this, and calls “I think, therefore I am,” the most dangerous of thoughts in the western world. The self is an integrated whole, and the conditions we think of as mental in nature can emerge and also be addressed in other parts of the body. Yes, diet is important.

We can decrease the risk of depression by cutting back on things I find delicious, like red meat, mystery meat, candy bars, chips and biscuits (including both the American and British definition of both words), buttery potatoes, ice cream, and a lot of the sort of rich foods that are all over the place during the holidays at the end of the year. The cravings we feel when we are low on energy are the same whether it’s physical or emotional energy that is depleted. What’s tricky is that what seems like listening to the body, in this case, is actually feeding the spirit of depression instead. Over time the body’s cries for help can become more pronounced, but these quick cravings do not often serve us well to heed. This must be replaced with more plants, including whole grains. For some reason the meat of fish tends to be on the healthier side, but since fish tend to eat or absorb much of the garbage generated in our disposable culture (such as mercury and plastic), I can’t say I recommend it personally at this time.

The messages our bodies send us can give us a lot of insight into our spiritual and mental condition, and what we put into our bodies is both a symptom of that condition, and a cause of it. While it’s common and easy to describe the body as separate from the mind, or the soul from the body, or the conscious from the unconscious mind, all these different aspects are part of the same whole, and anything that affects any part will always affect all parts. The digestive tract, having a direct connection to the brain, bears important messages about the condition of the entire self. Heed its wisdom, for it is your own wisdom, the wisdom of your gut.

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