Food and Mind and Soul

-- Behold, O Lord; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled -- Lamentations 1:20
 
-- ...let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord -- Philemon 1:20
 
I didn't know that digestion could disrupt mental health - until it happened to me.
 
After some stressful life events, prolonged stomach pains hit - and I was forced to 'work on my gut'.  To my surprise, this journey turned out to heal my thoughts and emotions too.  I discovered that digestion could massively alter mood. That what I ate could cause not only abdominal aches, but also sudden floods of negative feeling.
 
Weirdly, though, my diet was not a bad one.  In fact I was very careful to eat healthily.  But because my gut bacteria were out of whack, I processed carbohydrates and sugars in a way that produced toxins in my blood stream.  These types of toxins can cross the blood-brain barrier and affect thought processing. So even healthy carbs and sugars like wholegrains and fruit would 'feed' bad bacteria in the gut and in turn create emotional mayhem.
 
Being the central processing plant for the whole body, the gut is vital.  If it starts to digest things wrong, the whole body is affected. 
 
Many of the times we read 'heart' in the Bible, it's a translation of the original word for 'guts' or 'bowels'.  I used to think the biblical expression 'bowels of compassion' was sort of yucky and odd.  Now I know that emotions depend on the gut. Serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters for good emotions, are produced - you guessed it - intestinally.  Therefore, a simple food allergy can interfere with them.  As can antibiotics, hormone contraceptives, bad diet and long-term stress.  Gut problems can thus inhibit the production of those very biological chemicals by which we experience peace and joy.  (If this sounds like boiling the gifts of the Spirit down to blood and guts, perhaps it's a good reminder that Christianity is nothing, if not Incarnational.)
 
For example, you could be eating lots of B-vitamins, but not absorbing any of their mood-balancing properties.  Or eating grains and ending up with ethanol, not energy, in your system.
 
Perhaps I wouldn't have believed all this, if I hadn't experienced it myself.  It took a long time to accept that ordinary food could really affect me that much. But eventually it became clear: sudden and inexplicable floods of tears would arrive just after I'd digested sugars or carbs.  Almost before my eyes, the molehills of my life would turn into towering and terrifying mountains.  Feelings of hopelessness and catastrophe would overwhelm me.  
 
Once I'd grasped the gut-brain thing (I was in denial for a while), I avoided any form of sugar - even in root vegetables and fruit.  Given my sweet tooth, people said I had great discipline.  It was hard sometimes.  But it wasn't discipline. It was just sheer hatred of those terrible, terrible feelings.  No sugars, no downers: no problem.
 
The amazing thing is, your insides can heal up.  Given the right sort of TLC - and this is a moot point - the gut can reboot.  After a whole year, I am now able to eat fruit again. It's so sweet! (This from the girl who could once down a hundred-gram chocolate bar in one go.) And now - no emotional tidal waves.  The bacteria have balanced out and 'bad bugs' don't call my mental shots any more. 
 
Later, I thought: if I didn't know that all that stuff was my gut, I would assume I had way, way bigger emotional problems than I actually have.  I also thought: there must be so many people who have sadness that is compounded and confused by their digestion - and they don't even know it.  
 
So I want to spread the word about gut health.  But thankfully, I (and you) don't have to rely just on my own story. There's plenty of research that demonstrates the importance of diet and digestive balance in mental health.
 
I don't want to give the impression that, after these recent adventures, I'm now this tidy and perfectly sorted person (because that'd be a lie!). However, if anything that's helped me might help someone else, I want to share it.   Here's some stuff that helped recently:
 
-- Seeing a Christian nutritional therapist, eg http://emmamaitland-carew.co.uk/
-- Receiving prayer for healing at church, eg https://www.htb.org/prayer/healing-room
-- Reading up on gut health, eg http://www.gaps.me/preview/?page_id=20
-- Finding sugar-free food ideas online, eg https://iquitsugar.com/recipe/
 

Clare, 10/05/2015