It’s All In Your Head–No wait!–Your Gut…Or? Rethinking Depression


Depressed person

Serotonin and your gut

I was having a conversation with a psychiatrist, Dr. Bud Rickhi, the other day. He told me serotonin is produced in your gut (95% of it anyways) and is transported to your brain via your blood vessels.

Serotonin is thought to be the chemical that regulates mood in the brain. Too little serotonin is believed to contribute to depression. Anti-depressants typically elevate serotonin levels.

The intestinal connection with mental health…

So what if serotonin is produced in the gut? Dr. Rickhi and others talk about the link between intestinal and mental health. One idea is that if you’re not digesting your food properly, if for some reason there’s inflammation in your gut, it interferes with serotonin production. Inflammation can also interfere with blood platelet’s ability to carry serotonin to the brain. This is an important idea because it suggests that what we eat can contribute to how we feel–physically and mentally.

Butterflies and gut feelings…

On the other hand, how we feel can also impact our guts. Think of those butterflies in the stomach we can get when we’re excited, anticipating something, or are nervous or anxious.

What about those gut feelings, gut-wrenching experiences, or that pit in your stomach? Have you ever felt sick to your stomach because you’re so upset by something? We intuitively seem to know there’s a connection between our guts and our thoughts and feelings.

Dis-ease and our guts

What about the role that inflammatory illnesses or diseases play in serotonin production and our feelings of sadness, worry, or stress? I’m thinking about things like arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, nervous stomach, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Are they chicken or egg things? Do people with these illnesses get influenced by stress, worry, or sadness? If so, do problems in their guts contribute, or is it the other way around?

In an interview with Psychology Today, a neuro-biologist, Michael Gershon talked about how antidepressants in low doses have been used to effectively treat irritable bowel syndrome. Scientific American proposes our day-to-day emotional wellness may be in part reliant on our guts.

Counselling, appetite, and depression

As a psychologist, I’m trained to ask people about their appetite (as well as other questions) if I suspect–they’re telling me–they’re depressed. I ask questions as well about what they’re eating. Perhaps it could be helpful to include questions about how they feel after eating particular kinds of foods. I wonder if this might include questions about whole foods and processed foods…

Obviously, health and wellness is not simple and straightforward. We do know that lifestyle has an impact. Eating whole and natural foods, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking care of our hearts and minds may make a real difference.

What do you think?

What helps you when you’re feeling worried, stressed, or sad? Does relaxing, calming down, or accepting what you can’t change make a difference? What are the benefits of dealing with whatever is happening in your life that’s contributing to your feelings? What do you do to manage stress that helps? Does considering a variety of things you can do help you live the life you want?

Do you notice a difference in your mood depending on how well you’re eating, sleeping, or exercising? What helps you feel good and enjoy life in ways that are meaningful to you? Are ideas about the connection between your gut and your mind helpful…or not so much?

About the author:

Renée Meggs is a Registered Psychologist who works with adults and children to help them do what works, both in counselling and coaching. If you’d like to book an appointment or inquire about my services, please e-mail me at and/or go to my website at I can meet with you in person, on the phone, or on-line.