with a leaky
here's how to
make it end
It would be foolish to believe that depression can be overcome with
a single solution.
But for some people, the light at the end of the tunnel shines in a
very surprising place. It certainly did for me...
Healing my depression
came with healing my gastrointestinal tract:
When I became a nutrition
student in 1992, I had a lot of healing to do. I had the irritable
bowel from hell. No treatment had worked: not conventional medicine,
nor the truly woo-woo stuff.
What I discovered, as a student, was that I had something called a "leaky
gut". Cue much hilarity at that.
The term leaky gut conjures up an image of cartoonish pseudoscience.
But when given its scientific nomenclature - "intestinal
permeability" - the idea immediately gains credibility.
Furthermore, the scientific evidence for the association between gut
health and brain health is strong and gathering momentum.
What is a leaky gut? How can it lead to depression?
Your gut does much more than just digest your food and extract the
goodies from it. It forms a protective barrier between your insides
and the external world.
But the system has
This barrier - the gut lining - consists of just a
single layer of cells, called the epithelium. The cells of this
fragile layer are held together by proteins called "tight
carefully guarding your innards, these tight junctions sift out
undesirable elements and block their entrance.
circumstances, troublemakers are given short shrift and expelled
from the gut in the normal way. These include toxins, undigested
food particles, microscopic bugs and other foreign bodies that have
found their way in via your food and drink.
easy to damage the epithelium, leaving it leaky. Microscopic holes
appear and the tight junctions start to loosen.
For the assortment
of rabble able to cross into your bloodstream, it's like having an
all-access pass to the rest of your body.
ensues, and it isn't pretty.
Unsurprisingly, the symptoms of a leaky gut can show up
anywhere, from the gut to the joints, from the skin to the
I was proof
of that. For 15 years, I lived with daily abdominal pain,
often excruciating, accompanied by some extraordinary
bloating and gas.
have lived with all that. But as a sensitive young adult, I
could have done without the blemishes. Not, thankfully, on
But my chest and back were peppered. I was hugely
self-conscious, and only wore clothes that covered up those
areas. Summers could be tricky.
Part of the
problem is - and certainly was, for me - toxic overload.
The liver normally copes well with the body's everyday
toxins, but when the burden exceeds capacity, they get
dumped elsewhere. In my case, it was skin.
people experience different symptoms. There are many
conditions associated with a gut that has lost its integrity
and become porous, including,
have recently added depression to that list.
between depression and leaky gut is inflammation, and
inflammation is one of the key characteristics of intestinal
permeability. It is largely created by bacteria.
belong in the gut, where they normally either stay put or
move out. But when the gut is leaky, they are able to cross
into the bloodstream (a process known as "translocation of
bacteria"), where they release a toxic substance called
endotoxin sets in motion an immune response. This response
includes the production of inflammatory proteins called
cytokines, and a substance called lipopolysaccharide (LPS).
growing evidence that cytokines and LPS can trigger major
depression (MDD), also known as clinical depression.
so that in 2008 Belgian researchers concluded, in a
study published in the journal
be checked for leaky gut".
the research into the link between gut inflammation and
depression has continued.
data from the
Nutrition Examination Survey, an extraordinary 47% of
people with clinical depression also have 'heightened'
How does inflammation have
Cytokines are able
to trigger depression by altering activity in the regions of
the brain that control mood.
They also cause damage in those
regions. This can
result in feelings of negativity and fatigue, an effect that
has also been observed in
Cytokine is used to treat some cancers
and viral infections - and can trigger the onset of major
depression in up to 45% of patients.
On the bright side…
researchers have found that that when clinical
depression goes into remission, so too does inflammation.
these recent revelations as:
"A paradigm shift in
neuroscience, with possible implications for not only
understanding the pathophysiology of stress-related
psychiatric disorders, but also their treatment".
must be causing the exponential rise in depression that is
occurring on a global scale.
World Health Organization describes depression as
leading cause of disability' in the world. The U.S. leads
the way, with 13% of the population on anti-depressants.
If we look
at the nature of modern diets and lifestyles, it seems
obvious that they are a catalyst for the inflammatory
the 6 most likely causes of gut damage, leading to leakiness
1. Certain pharmaceuticals
The biggest offenders are the
anti-inflammatory drugs, or
NSAIDs like asprin and ibuprofen.
Tests have shown that around two thirds of NSAID users
have a leaky gut.
I had a
history of taking NSAIDs.
2. Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety cause leaky gut, and leaky gut can cause…
stress and anxiety.
This was a
chicken-and-egg situation for me:
I don't know which came
I was really down about the state of my skin and
digestion, and stressed by the frustration of not being able
to do anything about it. Stress makes things worse by
generating free radicals - harmful chemicals that
contribute to intestinal permeability.
I wasn't in
the best of places.
This is the term used to describe an imbalance between the
good and bad bacteria (and other microorganisms) that live
in the gut.
friendly bacteria play a critical role in maintaining
barrier function, and keeping out the undesirables and their
toxins. When the bad guys seize power, the good guys
retreat, creating a state of
dysbiosis and intestinal chaos.
dysbiosis can include bloating, gas, cramping, brain fog,
depression, and many common intestinal maladies.
definitely had that, as it turned out.
The dietary factors most likely to increase the leakiness of
your gut include:
alcohol, sugar, refined carbohydrates and
refined cooking oils.
Vegetable oils made from corn, soya
and sunflower are especially culpable. They are high in
omega-6 fatty acids, which are notorious for their
these were present in my diet at the time.
It's the habit that keeps on
taking. It's also free radical hell.
like a trooper in my late teens and throughout my 20s.
Foods to which you are allergic or intolerant also create
irritation and inflammation.
box I didn't tick...!
How to Heal
have linked healthier diets with a lower risk for
Prospective studies suggest that healthier
diets offer some protection against the development of
both depressive symptoms and depressive disorders."
news is that if you have a leaky gut, you can bypass all the
years of my learning curve and go straight to the healing
early, pre-student days, I lurched from one bad lead to
another in my quest to resolve all these issues. I saw a
succession of doctors and therapists who turned out to be as
clueless as I was.
included a skin specialist who gave me
only made things worse.
latter, I was convinced, was my man.
Here was a sage from
the East, practicing esoteric knowledge seeped in ancient
wisdom, no? No...
I brewed up
the foulest-tasting concoctions, believing the pain would be
worth the gain. There was
no gain. And the pain continued.
time, I was a nutrition philistine, and had no idea that all
my problems were connected. What truly
shocks me, even now, is that none of the specialists I
consulted did, either.
I came to realize -
eventually - that all my symptoms began and ended in my
important wisdom I acquired on my nutrition course is that
when a health problem presents itself, you have to deal with
the cause, not the symptom.
So, for the
first step on my self-directed healing journey, I invested
in two scientific diagnostic tools: a stool analysis and a
analysis - or more specifically, "comprehensive digestive
stool analysis" - is a simple test, carried out at home.
The laboratory that first devised the test is based in the
U.S., but practitioners all round the world use it.
Different countries have different regulations about who can
order a kit, so if this is something that interests you,
check with your healthcare provider.
information, visit the
Genova Diagnostics CDSA page.
analysis revealed that I had a severe case of dysbiosis:
bad guys (actually, they were downright evil) were in
control, rampaging through their dark kingdom like some
crazed, Middle-Earth despot.
guys were hiding out in some distant intestinal backwater,
too few and feeble to do their job, which was to guard my
was on the right track:
these results meant that there was a
very good chance I had a leaky gut...
turned out, the urine test confirmed my suspicions once and
Called an "Intestinal
Permeability Assessment", this urine test is carried out
by lots of medical laboratories, including the one I used
for my stool analysis.
ingeniously simple test that you do at home.
You just drink
a solution of different sized insoluble sugar molecules,
collect your urine, and mail off a sample. If your gut
lining is healthy, the large molecules should pass straight
through you undigested. But if they turn up in your urine,
it means your gut lining is porous.
enough, the results confirmed that I had a very permeable
positive test results lead me to further despair?
Au contraire! I
couldn't have been happier. Because I knew exactly what to
If your own test results confirm a leaky gut, these
actions can help you, too.
probiotics - supplements containing
friendly bacteria to fight the unfriendly. Probiotics also
tight junctions and produce anti-inflammatory chemicals.
are shaping up to be the medicine of the future. Not only
can they improve the health of the gut, they can also have
remarkable effects on the mind.
study published in
The British Journal of Nutrition described a clinical
trial of 30 volunteers suffering with depression. They were
given a daily probiotic supplement combining strains of
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria, for 30 days.
At the end
of the trial, they had 'significantly' reduced symptoms of
psychological distress, including depression,
anger-hostility, and anxiety.
How so? The
research is still in its infancy, but we do know that
bacteria in the gut communicate with
the brain via the
nerve, which links the two and which acts as a sort of
two-way superhighway along which messages are exchanged.
As well as
taking probiotics, I made sweeping changes to my diet.
Eliminate sugar and refined
the enemy of health in so many ways.
Sugary foods and drinks
trigger the release of large amounts of the hormone insulin,
which itself is a trigger for inflammation. The more
insulin, the more inflammation.
carbohydrates are, essentially, sugars.
White bread, rice,
pasta, chips, crisps and other savory snacks are all broken
down to glucose in the gut, before being absorbed into the
blood and raising insulin levels.
checking labels obsessively.
inflammatory omega-6 vegetable oils are ubiquitous in
ready-made meals and take-out, it might be easier to cook
all your food from scratch - using extra virgin olive oil,
butter or coconut oil.
and butter are predominantly saturated, and remain stable at
So too is extra virgin olive oil, which
is predominantly monounsaturated.
myself on self-imposed ban of alcohol. Alcohol is well-known
depressant, gut irritant and contributor to leaky gut
So I stay clear (most of the time… I am human).
I added as
many vegetables as I could manage - especially the brightly
colored ones, including peppers, tomatoes, red onions and
I made sure that I also ate at least one portion
each day of dark leafy greens, such as cabbage, broccoli and
spinach. All these
vegetables are loaded with
antioxidants that fight damaging free radicals, and
plant chemicals that fight inflammation.
are also a source of 'prebiotics', nutrients that feed the friendly
bacteria in your gut and encourage their growth and
as live yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables
increase your levels of lactic acid bacteria such as
This helps restore the microbial balance
that is off-kilter in those of us with dysbiosis.
Eat oily fish
have been found to have lower blood
omega-3 fatty acids
than non-depressed people.
importance of omega-3 fats to brain health cannot be
they are involved in brain development, mood and
cognitive function from pre-birth to old age.
trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines are rich in
anti-inflammatory omega-3 oils, which work in opposition to
the pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils found in processed foods.
As part of
my regime, I ate lots of oily fish, and just for good
measure took a daily fish oil supplement.
if you are taking
If you are, discuss alternative
medications with your physician.
If you know
a certain food gives you trouble, avoid it.
If you are
not sure, you might try avoiding
foods containing gluten and
see if it helps. Gluten has a long association with leaky
gut. Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye.
in between meals
breaks between meals - a form of intermittent fasting
lower markers of inflammation.
have to do anything drastic - just stop unnecessary
grazing between meals, and only eat when you are hungry.
Giving your digestive system a rest gives it time to heal.
several months for me to complete the healing process.
was worth the effort:
all my symptoms vanished, and I felt
on top of the world.
all vanish at once. But they did start to improve almost
First, my digestion calmed down. The pain
subsided, along with the gas. That was when I knew that the
years of elastic waistbands were coming to an end.
took a little longer to heal, but I was encouraged. Spots
became less vicious, and didn't hang around for so long.
Eventually, they stopped appearing.
way, I noted other minor improvements:
better, more refreshing sleep.
I was on a
one-way street, heading in the direction of healing one step
at a time.
I went on
to practice as a nutrition consultant for over 15 years, and
saw many cases of leaky gut in that time. I find it takes
most people at least two months to heal. It's a journey, as
well as a transformation.
I am always
struck by how people are affected in such different ways.
Sometimes, leaky gut is fiendishly hard to spot. Although
the vast majority of people with the condition also have
digestive symptoms, some don't.
one particular man who had a nasty case of arthritis, all
over his body, but no irritable bowel. He tested positive
for leaky gut.
The main clue was, and remains, inflammation
- a significant factor in depression, as we now know.
the two conditions co-occur,
treating inflammation in tandem with depression can
enhance recover and reduce the risk of recurrence."
is a condition that can affect any one of us, and in so many
ways - including, profoundly, our mental health.
And, as I
discovered, there is nothing more empowering than
acknowledging that you have the ability, through dietary
changes, to turn around both your physical and your mental
possibly the best journey you could go on.