In third grade I complained of a tummy ache pretty much every day. I missed quite a bit of school and went to the doctor often. My diagnoses? Irritable Bowel Syndrome and stress (as if they aren’t one in the same). And by the way, what does a 9 year old from a loving, stable family have to be stressed about? Could it be that IBS was causing me to be stressed?
Through most of my childhood I dealt with this mysterious IBS that caused gas, diahreah and a whole lot of embarrassment. My anxiety worsened as I entered my teens and depression crept into my life, along with a slew of disordered eating habits.
By my early 20’s, I was a proper mess. The depression and anxiety were out of control. Panic attacks, days of sleeping, cycles of binging and purging, cutting, suicidal thoughts. The counseling and drugs helped, a little…sometimes…and I have no doubt that my care providers had my best interests in mind.
As I started transforming my diet to a whole foods plant based diet and I began running longer and longer distances, many of the symptoms began to ease. Each long run and green smoothie seemed to bring me a step closer to whole. Now, at 31, I can honestly say I am healthier, more vibrant and full of life than I was at 21.
What healed me? What actually ailed me? Let’s start with a discussion about IBS.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). Irritable bowel syndrome commonly causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. IBS is a chronic condition that you will need to manage long term.
Unlike forms of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohons and Ulcerative Colitis, it does not cause permanent tissue damage. Still, it can range from uncomfortable to painful and can seriously get in the way of life.
IBS can typically be controlled with diet and in some cases, medications are prescribed. I was prescribed medication in college and a week later I was in shock on the bathroom floor. I stopped taking the medication.
Interestingly, IBS is often associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. hm.
Research has shown that gut health is in many ways determined very early on in life. Sure, we can and should be doing things to promote gut health as adults, but the “good” bacteria that we need for proper digestion and immune function are established very early on. Take for example what happens during child birth. During pregnancy, women develop new bacteria in their vaginas (they already had tons) that will literally form the healthy micro-biome the child needs to have proper immune responses once in the world. This is, one of the reasons, why it is so important that a baby be born vaginally if possible. With C-sections on the rise, this has serious implications for the adult immune systems of babies being born in this way. This is in no way meant to shame mothers who need medical intervention. Thank GOD for life saving C-sections…but we really should be thinking about why the number of C-sections has risen so drastically.
Breast feeding is another way in which babies’ biomes are inoculated with the good bacteria they need to develop their immune systems. These bacteria strains will stay with them their entire lives! If possible, mothers should be encouraged to breast feed their infants for at least the first year! The World Health Organization recommends until at least 2 years of age and then as long as its mutually enjoyed by mama and baby. Extended breast feeding still provides incredible immune support to toddlers (so if your 3 or 4 year old still loves their mama milk, rock on). There is plenty of literature on the benefits of breast feeding so I’ll spare you, but yes, breast feeding is critical in the development of these bacteria.
Overuse of anti-biotics is another component that effects children from a very young age. There is evidence that the micro-biomes of babies who are given antibiotics NEVER fully recover. Never. Holy Crap. We are so fortunate that Leif has been healthy. We’ve been able to “ride” out a few mini-ear infections with the use of garlic and muilen oils and monitoring. Phew.
I was born vaginally (with no pain meds- go Mom) and I was breast fed for the first year of my life (Thanks, Mom!) but I did suffer from chronic ear infections and was given antibiotics to treat them–sometimes you’ve gotta. Could this be part of my IBS story? Maybe.
Diet and environment also have a significant role on the health of our micro-biome. We actually contain more bacteria than our actual “self” cells! WOWZA! And bugs gotta eat too. When we feed the “good” bacteria with plant based whole foods, they thrive (and so do we)! When we starve them and feed the “bad” bacteria, the bad bacteria thrives and the good guys struggle to maintain balance.
We are exposed to tons of chemicals each day that we either inhale, digest through food or absorb via out skin. These chemicals also play a role. Over use of anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers kills the bad guys along with the good! Sure, there are times when some anti-bac is important. You better believe I used it while traveling in India. I weighed the risk of contracting bad bacteria that could be potentially fatal to the risk of killing some good bacteria and decided to carry hand sanitizer. Risk management. But when we over use it and teach our children to over sanitize, we rob our guts of the bacteria they need to keep us functioning. So let your babes play in the dirt and for the love of bacteria, don’t scrub them with antibacterial soap after!
So What’s This Got to do with Depression and Anxiety?
95% of our neurotransmitters are made in our gut. That’s right–MOST of the natural chemicals we need for mental health are produced in the gut.
If the gut ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Here I was, an anxious child from a stable loving family (no real reason to be anxious at that age) having intestinal distress, missing school often and ultimately developing an eating disorder (which further wreaked havoc on my gut) and clinical depression that would be treated with loads of medication. As my eating became more and more disordered, my IBS, depression and anxiety also worsened exponentially.
Not one single doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, or dietician that I saw throughout this ordeal ever once mentioned gut health to me. Can I just say, “What the fuck?” What the fuck. There, I said it. When I began my journey toward plant based eating, I didn’t do it to cure my IBS, depression or disordered eating. I did it because I was obsessed with food and always looking for something to control. Also, it just made sense to me–from a personal health, environmental health, and ethical point of view. It just so happened that each step I took toward a more whole foods plant based diet, I started to feel better–physically, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually.
Quite honestly, the whole gut, IBS, mental health connection didn’t click for me until more recently as I’ve been learning more and more about gut health and I can’t help but look back at my own journey and see how changing my diet healed me on so many levels.
Do I still get gas cramps? Yes. Especially when I’m relying more on processed foods than I should be or when I eat out or at someone’s home and they cook with an ingredient (even vegan) that my system doesn’t like. Do I still feel sad sometimes? Of course! There have even been times since becoming a vegan that I’ve wanted some pharmacital or recreational help to ease my anxiety or sadness. But it is no longer something that rules me! Bulimia no longer has power over me.
What years of gas, bloating, and depression taught me.
- Our health care system needs to focus more on health and less on superficial treatments.
- We can’t rely on others to save us. Ultimately, only we can heal ourselves–sometimes we might need a bit of help from the “professionals” but we have to do the work.
- Our bodies want us to be whole. In most cases, our bodies are seeking homeostasis–when we give them the nourishment they need, they respond kindly.