Digestion and Mental Health

Another fascinating conjunction of ideas occurs in the correlation of the digestive process and mental health.  Researchers at Caltech, published a paper showing that serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter and often called the happy molecule, is produced mainly in the gut.  A senior author of the study Elaine Hsiao explains, ”More and more studies are showing that mice or other model organisms with changes in their gut microbes exhibit altered behaviours,”  This is an emerging area of research in science and many researchers question the link between serotonin and depression.  These same researchers at Caltech have also done research on the microbiome and autism. 

The link between mental health and digestion has been recognized for a long time by TTM.  One of the most common Tibetan medicine formulas for digestive problems is also used when digestive problems coincide with an ‘agitated mind’ (སེམས་པ་ཚབ་ཚུབ་) and ‘useless lamenting’ (དོན་མེད་སེམས་སྡུག་བྱེད་པ་).  In other words this digestive formula works particularly for people who also have depression and are unhappy. There are many references in TTM to this conjunction of mind and body.  Many herbal formulas, especially those dealing with rlüng imbalances, list mental health issues such as (insomnia, depression, paranoia, anxiety) as well as digestive problems, that benefit from their use.

 Another study published in the June 12, 2018 edition of JAMA correlates the use of certain prescription drugs with a greater prevalence of depression. The study involved 26,192 adults to determine if in fact they experienced depression which was reported as a potential side effect of their prescription drugs. The prescription drugs that were used included very common drugs for acid reflux certain types of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as Prilosec or Zantac (used to treat acid reflux), beta blockers, anxiety drugs, painkillers including ibuprofen, ACE inhibitors (used to treat high blood pressure), and anti-convulsant drugs.  According an NPR article on the report, Mark Olfson, one of the study authors reports that “The more of these medications you’re taking, the more likely you are to report depression.” 

As we struggle to deal with mental health issues as a society, a closer investigation of the correlation of digestion, the gut and mental health is needed. The CDC found that, from 1999 to 2016, the annual rate of suicide rose by nearly 30 percent for people over age 10!  We need to look carefully at the prescription drugs we are taking to make sure they are not fixing one problem just to cause another.  As pharmaceutical companies develop more and more targeted and very strong chemicals the possible side effects cannot be ignored and as consumers we need to educate ourselves.  

In TTM the connection between mood, mental disorders and digestion has long been recognized because the body and mind are always considered together.  The energy most associated with our mind and consequently our mental health, is rlüng.  One of the three nyes pa, rlüng is present throughout our body.   Although there are 5 different rlüng types and innumerable pathways throughout the body, the main place of rlüng in our body is in our large intestines.  Perhaps regulating and protecting the digestive process and also rlüng, enables proper production and uptake of serotonin and other chemicals that effect mood.  And perhaps using PPIs which regulate acid production in the gut has unintended effects on the bodies’ chemicals that deal with our mental health.

In the world today and in the West in particular we are fortunate to have had the invention of pharmaceuticals which have changed our lives for the better, eliminating almost completely many life-threatening diseases and providing antibiotics and immunizations that have extended our life expectancy.  However, we have become so enamored with pharmaceuticals that we have forgotten basic common sense knowledge about taking care of ourselves and we run to the doctor’s office at the least sign of illness.  It is important to take a balanced approach to our own health and not rely so heavily on pharmaceuticals.

One simple habit we can cultivate is drink hot boiled water. This was the first medicine noted in written chronicles of Tibetan medicine for indigestion.  Drinking hot water after any kind of heavy or oily food helps to break up and digest the fat.  A cup of hot water with a pinch of salt taken in the morning can also help to break down mucous build-up in the stomach that blocks the pathways of digestion.  Also, using herbal formulas based on plants and minerals that are balanced for the whole body may have fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals that extract a single targeted component. By paying more attention to our diet and behavior we can prevent and even in some cases reverse common illnesses such as acid reflux, diabetes and perhaps depression.