You know the expression, “I had a gut feeling”? That may be more real than you think. What if I told you that feeling was all about a compound called serotonin? You’ve probably heard of it, especially if you are one of the millions of Americans being treated for depression or anxiety with an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor.) Serotonin is a molecule on a mission, from the moment of its release at the nerve ending. In the brain it helps to regulate mood, cognition, memory and sleep. SSRI’s change the way serotonin is handled in the brain, causing it to keep re-using the same molecules repeatedly, rather than allowing the breakdown and re-cycling that would normally occur. For some folks, this can be a lifesaving intervention, but one of the questions about these drugs is whether they can lead to or worsen true serotonin deficiencies. Some clinicians think that’s exactly what happens.
Research has shown that serotonin levels are lower in people who have experienced a traumatic event. Normally, this is a temporary response, but for some folks, especially those who experienced significant trauma as a child, the serotonin levels do not return to normal after the event, leaving them at risk for disorders such as depression, anxiety, bulimia, schizophrenia, and even epilepsy. (Autism and ADD are also on the spectrum for reasons beyond the scope of this discussion.) Humans have to synthesize their own melatonin, and guess where that happens? In the gut! Alas, the origin of most health problems can be found there.
Let me explain. For a moment, think of yourself seated, and your body as a tree – and then consider that if you were a tree, your roots would be in your intestines (the seat of the gut), embedded in a thick lining of mucous secreting cells and normal bacterial inhabitants – the gut barrier. The mucosal cells harbor the immune system and manufacture serotonin and histamine, as well as many vitamins and enzymes. This lining is full of tiny blood vessels that are networked with the rest of the body to transport nutrients that have been broken down from your food. It also functions as a filter to keep waste products out of the blood, and it requires a certain pH and proper nutrition to remain intact. When barrier cells are damaged due to stress, poor diet, nutritional deficiencies or infection, the synthesis of serotonin and other compounds can be compromised, and the barrier can break down, allowing toxins to escape into the blood. These toxins and the lack of proper serotonin production can lead to serious conditions, like depression and anxiety.
ND’s are well trained in normalizing gut function through nourishment and repair of the gut lining, and use this strategy as a foundation for treatment of many disorders, including depression. If you or someone you know is suffering, consider a consultation with a naturopath. It could change your life.
Dr. Ellen Sauter is a naturopath practicing general family medicine at The Benchmark Clinic of Integrative Medicine in NW Portland. She specializes in chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, digestive disorders and balancing brain chemistry. She can be reached at 503-223-7067, or contact us here.