News about depression and its diagnosis and treatment dominated the headlines recently following the death of Robin Williams. Depression affects approximately 17.1 million American adults, or about 8 percent of the U.S. population ages 18 and older, in a given year. Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15 to 44, and 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience it during their lifetimes.1
Symptoms of depression include a persistently sad or depressed mood, and a loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities once deemed enjoyable. A decrease in appetite and a lack interest in food, sex, exercise and social interactions are common. There may be feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt and worthlessness, along with physical fatigue and an inability to concentrate, remember and make decisions. Insomnia, fitful sleep, and weight loss or gain may present, along with restlessness, irritability and thoughts of suicide. Physical symptoms that don’t respond well to treatment may also appear, including digestive ailments like indigestion and constipation, or headaches, backaches and other chronic pain.2
Stress and Serotonin Neurotransmitters
Depression can best be understood as our body’s response to abnormal or constant stress (e.g., relationships, money, job), and it’s in this context that an understanding of serotonin can shed significant light.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter—a neuron or specialized nerve cell that receives, process and transmits information to other cells of the body. Serotonin neurotransmitters play an important role in the regulation of our emotions and mood—particularly, feelings of well-being and happiness—as well as our sleep, appetite and energy level. What’s more, the brain uses neurotransmitters like serotonin to tell your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe and your stomach to digest.3
Digestion and Depression
Biochemically, serotonin comes from tryptophan, and is found primarily in our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). The way serotonin works in our brain is through neural transmission, which coordinates a healthy immune response and GI function to our bodies.
But the digestion process is critical to our body’s production of serotonin—and hence, to our well-being— because serotonin is made from amino acids that are broken down from proteins in the food we eat. This critical digestive process requires digestive enzymes and a sufficient amount of HCL Betaine (stomach acid) to break down the proteins into the smaller amino acids that produce serotonin.
But low levels of serotonin resulting from our body’s reaction to stress will hinder the digestion process. Stress affects our body’s biochemistry by raising hormone levels in our adrenal glands. Adrenals, located atop the kidneys, control stress reactions by releasing a set of hormones called corticosteroids and cortisol. Steroid hormones like cortisol are designed to deal with emergency-like situations. However, some people live in a state of constant emergency-like situations, which causes the steroid hormones to be released constantly. This, in turn, produces a condition where elevated levels of stress hormones are flooding the systems of our body—typically in the morning, where you wake up feeling annoyed, angry, pressured, worried or overwhelmed.
Too much cortisol suppresses the release of serotonin, making us feel even more depressed, and the incidence and likelihood of suicide also increases proportionately with a rise in cortisol levels. Other neurotransmitters that affect the brain function are similarly suppressed, including dopamine and thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormones lower blood-sugar levels, inducing hypoglycemia and depressing the body’s reaction to stress, which causes anxiety, fatigue and nervousness.
Our body’s response to a stress through cortisol-overload leads to the malabsorption of digested food particularly because we need to be relaxed in order for digestive enzymes to flow. Again, our body’s reaction to stress hinders digestion, preventing proper hormone metabolization and causing us to feel bloated and generally unwell. In the end, if the body can’t digest protein into amino acids then the brain can’t get the neurotransmitters it needs.
The Importance of a Healthy Gut
The body produces neurotransmitters in the GI tract (gut) from the breakdown of protein into essential amino acids, arriving at the brain by way of a special pathway. But if there’s a problem in the gut with digestion—with breaking down/metabolizing or absorbing the food—the undigested food rots there due to the slow transition time. This results in decreased bowel movements and gut infections like candida and metabolic toxicity through the release of bacteria, co-infections, worms, parasites and viruses. Candida increases sugars and CHO, absorbing heavy metals into the body and metabolic toxicity is a condition where the brain is not being cleansed properly and there is a failure of the body’s autophagy process, which cleans the and recycles the body’s cellular components overnight, especially the brain. This toxic build-up produces hyper-acidity in the body, which can cause panic attacks and anxiety. (The ideal acid PH level for the body is 6.8 – 7.0 in the morning.)
The Importance of Brain Nutrients
Depression is also directly influenced by the lack of major brain nutrients—deficiencies in diet that are needed to support normal brain function. Major nutrients required for health brain function include: Co-Q10; Omega 3 & 6 and Fatty Acids; D3; Phosphytidyl Serene; B-Complex; Gutathione; and Selenium.
Amino acids like tryptophan formed from proteins in the digestive tract produce serotonin neurotransmitters that are transported to the brain and released as chemicals by the brain cells. These chemical signals travel from one part of brain to the other, communicating to the body about when to speed up or slow down. Neurology manipulates these neurotransmitters synthetically and chemically. In fact, the foods we have for breakfast impact our neurology for rest of the day. Serotonin is the most important neurotransmitter related to behavior. We can influence its rate of production in our bodies, and the rate it gets from our guts to our brains, nutritionally through something called restorative neurology.
Severe depletion of serotonin in the body causes depression because the brain is unable to repair itself. Symptoms of serotonin depletion mirror those of depression, including obsessive-compulsive behavior, anxiety, panic attacks, and excessive anger, due to the inadequate production of new brain cells. The key to restored health involves boosting serotonin levels, which, in turn, produces new brain cells so the brain and body can once again continue to repair and heal itself.
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1. General statistics from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), http://depression.emedtv.com/depression/depression-statistics.html
2. Symptoms of Depression, eMedTV, http://depression.emedtv.com/depression/symptoms-of-depression.html
3. Neurotransmitters 101: The NeuroScience, Inc. Lab Report