Dr. Randi Fredricks, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher and author with a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Doctorate in Naturopathy. Dr. Fredricks works
It turns out that stomach problems can cause a lot more than just physical discomfort. Research has suggested that gastrointestinal troubles may be linked with anxiety and depression as well.
It is probably no surprise that stomach issues can cause stress, but they can also lead to significant mental health problems. The stomach complaints most strongly associated with anxiety and depression appear to be conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, a 2011 Stanford University study discovered that even short-term digestive problems can lead to mental health issues later.
The researchers started with the premise that a person’s stress levels can be exacerbated by the condition of their gut. This caused the scientists to believe that gastrointestinal disorders may affect the psychological wellbeing of an individual. Based on this hypothesis, the scientists worked with rats that had serious gastric problems when they were between 8 and 10 weeks old. Using markers for depression and anxiety, the researchers found that these rats were more likely to be depressed and anxious than rats that had not experienced the same difficulties. This caused the scientists to conclude that gastric upset during the beginning of life appear to cause the brain to shift into a permanently depressed and anxious state.
Of course, not all stomach irritation is related with lifelong psychological problems. The Stanford study noted that the exact impact most likely depends on when gastrointestinal trouble occurs during someone’s development. It is also likely influenced by genetics and other environmental factors.
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Research has found that around 20 percent of Americans suffer from persistent or recurring pain in the upper stomach region, related to conditions such as IBS. A number of studies have shown that these individuals are significantly more likely to experience anxiety or depression.
Researchers have previously thought that stress hormones were the reason that people with digestive problems were more anxious and depressed. More recent studies, such as the one at Stanford, have implicated childhood gastrointestinal issues that occurred before the person’s psychological symptoms developed.
A large body of research into complementary and alternative therapies has examined the relationship between the mind and the body, but the Stanford study focused on how the body can directly affect the mind. The evidence led the researchers to note that the condition of a person’s stomach can directly affect the way they think and behave. The primary mechanism identified was a signal from the stomach to the brain that causes a permanent change. Scientists are further investigating precisely how that communication is triggered and sent to the brain. This could lead to new treatment therapies for anxiety and depression.
Based on research in this area, experts came to believe that anxiety and depression may sometimes be caused by electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve. This belief prompted the development of new therapies for treatment-resistant depression.
Health care practitioners specializing in alternative therapies for mental health have suggested that an effective way to treat digestive problems is the use of a probiotic, such as Activia or one of the many other brands found in health food stores. In addition, there are other dietary therapies that have been found to be helpful in improving intestinal health and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as special diets and therapeutic fasting. Is overthinking interfering with your daily life? Take our overthinking test to gain insights and find strategies for a more balanced mindset.
Liu L, Li Q, Sapolsky R, Liao M, Mehta K, et al. 2011 Transient Gastric Irritation in the Neonatal Rats Leads to Changes in Hypothalamic CRF Expression, Depression- and Anxiety-Like Behavior as Adults. PLoS ONE 6(5): e19498. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019498
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