This is a very interesting question. And the answer isn’t clear. However, there appears to be a link between depression and constipation. The link is to do with our body’s balance of serotonin.
So how is serotonin linked to depression?
The main school of thought is that one of the causes of depression is low serotonin production. Serotonin is a chemical produced by the body that functions as a neurotransmitter and is understood to have a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. Researchers believe that depression is partly caused by low levels of serotonin and doctors therefore, in general, treat depression with antidepressants which contain serotonin but also increase the levels of this chemical by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin into the cells.
So how does this link to constipation? Well around 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, in the enterochromaffin cells (EC) in the intestinal mucosa. Once serotonin is produced, it then bonds to special receptors and activates our system to increase intestinal motility. Research has shown that there is an increase in plasma 5-HT during diarrheal diseases, and a decrease in them when constipation is present (1).
So as most of our serotonin is produced in our gut, does it follow that good gut health is implicated in good mental health? And is mental health also therefore implicated in a healthy gut? The answer is that although this is not the whole picture, good gut health may certainly be involved. That feeling of your stomach being tied in knots before a presentation, or butterflies before a date, these sensations show us that our nervous system is intricately linked with our gastrointestinal system. In more recent years the link between the two systems has become more understood. There is a constant exchange of chemicals and electrical messages between the gut and brain which is now known as the gut-brain axis. What affects the stomach will affect the brain and visa versa. It therefore follows that medications used to target the brain, such as antidepressants, may also cause digestive upsets such as diarrhoea or indeed constipation. Fat soluble drugs can penetrate the gut wall and damage the finely tuned balance of the digestive system causing our digestion to become impaired.
So in summary, having low levels of serotonin may contribute towards both depression and constipation. The medication we may need to take to support us through depression can also cause constipation, although this is unique to each individual. Depression is a real illness with real symptoms and can, if not addressed, be damaging to that person. Medication is at times very valuable and necessary. If you are suffering from low mood or anxiety, it is very important to discuss this with either your doctor or a health professional.
Feeling low or depressed can make a person feel very trapped. Adding constipation to this can really add to negative feelings as well as physical feelings of discomfort, tiredness, and headaches. So what can we do to help ourselves in this situation? The irony of the situation is that when we feel like this we reach for comfort foods which will exacerbate both the low mood and constipation. Foods such as carbohydrates, sugar, unhealthy fats, processed foods, fizzy drinks and other stimulants such as alcohol, coffee and cigarettes not to mention a sedentary lifestyle all exacerbate the problem.
Hard as it may be when feeling depressed or constipated, this is the time to really look after yourself. There are some theories that suggest that low mood and depression can stem from a lack of the building blocks that actually create the relevant neurotransmitters. This may or may not be the case but there is research to suggest that certain minerals are often low in people who suffer from stress and depression. Of course again this can link back to an impaired digestion and absorption of vital nutrients. Good gut health is vital for general good health. Exercise is also a well known mood booster as well as a well known bowel stimulant!
Here are a few basic tips to consider to help boost your serotonin levels
1.Exercise and meditate – both of these are important and known to both boost serotonin levels as well as relieve anxiety. This will help with bowel motility as well.
2. Eat protein high in Tryptophan – Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein and is the building block for serotonin. Therefore proteins that serve as dietary source of tryptophan are recommended to help increase serotonin levels. Such proteins include poultry, meat, dairy foods, soy and legumes.
3. Spend some time in the sun - Natural light, especially sunlight, helps stimulate serotonin levels as well as vitamin D levels.
4. Avoid comfort foods – it is natural to reach for ‘carby’ or sugary foods when feeling low, anxious, depressed and sluggish. However these sadly are the worst to go for. They increase possible issues with blood sugar balance which can exacerbate issues with other hormones. One of the pathways to a healthy mood is to have balanced blood sugar. Don’t cut out carbohydrates altogether however reduce them and cut out sugar as much as possible. Swap for proteins and healthy fats and lots of vegetables. Don’t forget that unrefined carbohydrates and vegetables will also give you the fibre you so need to alleviate constipation.
5. Avoid stimulants – stimulants such as coffee and alcohol will exacerbate the problem and put you in a negative cycle of dependency. It also contributes to the blood sugar imbalance issue. Drink plenty of water to help alleviate the constipation.
6. Choose your supplements wisely – get some advice on this. 5HTP can be very useful for boosting serotonin levels however this should not be taken alongside any anti-depressant medication. Check with your doctor first. B-vitamins, Magnesium, and fish oils, vitamin D and zinc are also very useful supplements. It is possible that a deficiency in these could be contributing to your symptoms. Consider seeing a Nutritional therapist to discuss this and if not check with your pharmacy or local health food shop before taking supplements.
7. Check in with your digestion – you are not just what you eat, but rather what you digest and absorb. Depression and constipation can be a chicken and egg situation. Has the low mood been contributed to, due to an already struggling digestive system, or was it the other way round? It may be very useful for you to get some advice from a health professional on this. However, there are many useful tips on this website to help alleviate constipation and work towards a healthier bowel.
8. Get your thyroid checked - depression and constipation are both symptoms of an underfunctioning thyroid. It may be worth discussing this with your GP.
Please remember that depression is a very lonely and real state of being. Do not try to get through this alone. Seeing either a Dr or a health professional and asking for some help is important. The tips in this article should not replace professional support.
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picture sources: www.health.com, www.recipegirl.com