The Gastrointestinal System
The gastrointestinal system is comprised of six hollow shaped organs and three that are solid. This system, often referred to as the GI tract, extends in order, from the mouth to the esophagus, into the stomach, then onto the small and large intestines, reaching the final destination, the anus. The three gastrointestinal solid organs include the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder and together, these nine organs work in concert to help us digest and metabolize our food for maximal health and nutrition.
The GI tract is a particularly sensitive system that needs to balance the foods we eat, how we process them, and how the rest of our body is sustained as result. Every organ in the gastrointestinal system needs to work together in a complementary fashion, since each part’s functions hinge on the ones prior to it. In order to maintain the flow of nutrients from one part of the body to another, this system acts much like a chain of dominoes, with one piece setting off the next to do its job.
Unfortunately however, there can be problems within the gastrointestinal framework that can affect individuals on a wide variety of scales. Not only do the diagnoses that plague this system vary from minor to major, but within each, the effects can be profound or barely noticeable. For example, one of the most problematic of these diagnoses is Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. This condition can present with constipation as a primary symptom, in other cases, with diarrhea as a primary symptom, and in particularly difficult cases, with both constipation and diarrhea together. IBS is not life threatening, and it is often diagnosed after other conditions have been ruled out. In fact, IBS is not even its own definitive disease state but rather, a conglomerate of conditions that often leave physicians wondering how to treat its sufferers. Unlike IBS however, Crohn’s disease, is a chronic, progressive condition, that causes inflammation of the digestive tract, can lead to excruciating pain and debilitation, and in some cases can be life- threatening.
While any condition that is chronic, painful, life altering, and sometimes both progressive and terminal, can lead anyone to feeling “down” or helpless, there is a particularly significant connection to feeling sad or morose as it relates to diseases of the gastrointestinal system. This is in large measure because serotonin, the hormone and neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood function, our ability to maintain appropriate levels of happiness, and contributes greatly to the control of our sleep and wake cycles, is found largely within the hormone receptors located in the walls of the intestines. And because low levels of serotonin are negatively correlated to a diagnosis of depression (read: more serotonin leads to less depression and vice versa), it is no wonder that so many who suffer from gastrointestinal conditions are also faced with depression, mood disorders, and imbalances from the inside, out.
Depression is a commonly diagnosed mood disorder characterized by prolonged periods of sadness that affect one’s day to day life. Depression extends far beyond simply “feeling down” and can dramatically interfere with interpersonal relationships, self care, self image, and in extreme cases, lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation.
Depression does not only affect how one thinks or feels about themselves or their place in the world, however. This disorder can manifest and present in physical ways, and in doing so get in the way of one’s ability to maintain employment, friendships, secure income, and get proper medical care. The mind and body are connected not only through blood and tissue, but nerve endings, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. This is where the “mind- gut” connection can be seen most vividly.
To further confound the connection between body and spirit is a chicken- and- egg type conundrum. Specifically, it can be difficult to discern if it is depression that causes gastrointestinal distress or, if it is the pain and discomfort of gastrointestinal disorders that lead one to feeling sad and emotionally distressed.
The Connection Between the Gut and the Brain
The reason there is so much confusion about which disorder causes the other can be boiled down to one scientific fact. Serotonin, the hormone most integrally involved in the management of depression and depressive disorders, lives primarily within the human gut. Essentially, one relates so directly to the other, that whether causative or correlational, the link between them remains strong.
In addition to this, the presence of certain bacteria and types of microbial organisms have been found to not only exist within the intestinal walls, but to potentiate the effects of serotonin within them. Research now indicates that the majority of the serotonin produced in the GI tract is dependent upon certain types of microbes in order to maintain and encourage the production of serotonin and in turn, the effects it has on mind, body, and mood.
Maintaining strong gastrointestinal and mental health
What we can extrapolate from research on the mind- gut connection is that gastrointestinal health is significantly connected to our mental health. It may seem almost comical that what we eat will affect our mood, but perhaps overused anecdotes about, for example, chocolate making one happy, are not all that far off.
So how do we keep our brains healthy, our serotonin levels up, and our gastrointestinal tract functioning smoothly? Luckily, there are several ways to adaptively address all of these concerns, in realistic and practical ways. In fact, these methods can be incorporated into daily life on a rather regular basis.
- Eating the right kinds of foods that work best with your particular GI tract is crucial. For many individuals that includes abstaining from alcohol, eating fibrous foods, eating cooked instead of raw vegetables, and staying well hydrated.
- Exercise serves as an incredible catalyst for health in both gastrointestinal matters and mood regulation. As you exercise, the production of endorphins, what are sometimes referred to as “happy hormones” increases. In turn, endorphins improve mood, and serve as a natural antidepressant, further supporting the production of serotonin. Additionally, exercise increases the presence of the gut bacteria responsible for the production of serotonin, as well.
- While this can be said for many diagnoses, the ways in which you conduct yourself is critical to both your gastrointestinal and mental health. You are at greater risk for poor overall health if you do not get sufficient amounts of sleep, disregard convictions to your diet and exercise regimen, and engage in behaviors that are unsafe as well as dangerous. These include smoking, engaging in illicit substances, and avoiding medically prescribed and supervised treatments for mood or GI disorders.
- Lastly, antidepressants that increase the presence of serotonin both in the gut and brain are seen by some as controversial, but contribute greatly to the health and welfare of many in the general public. While any medication you take should be carefully supervised and medically sanctioned, antidepressants are most certainly not a treatment you should disregard or brush off as bad, wrong, or a mere bandage to the pain one is suffering. Antidepressants have a rightful, therapeutic place within the worlds of mental and physical health and for many individuals, they are truly life saving.
When it is Time to Seek Help
Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC’s practice in Glendale, California provides a host of services, both traditional as well as alternative, that can support your goals to achieving a healthy mind and a healthy body. The stigma attached to mental health issues, as well as the unpleasant features of many gastrointestinal ailments, are not something Dr. Kurestian or his staff shy away from discussing openly, professionally, and competently. Contact Body Systems Wellness when you are ready to resolve and treat what ails your body and soul.