The link between food and anxiety and depression

written by Michael Elstein

13354898 – portrait of a sad woman

Credit: 123RF

Anxiety and depression are a windfall for the pharmaceutical companies, whose coffers are only going to swell as a burgeoning ageing population struggles to battle these twin mental dragons. That is, unless you introduce Peter Gotzsche, a Danish physician, medical researcher and co-founder of the Cochrane Collaboration, the world’s foremost body in assessing medical evidence, who has helmed a number of research papers that cast a giant shadow over the purported benefits of anti-depressant medications.

In a coruscating affront to the hallowed edicts of Western psychiatry, Gotzsche’s extensive analysis reveals that for every 10 patients treated with anti-depressants only one will respond in a positive manner. This is compounded by the shocking evidence uncovered by Gotzsche that, even for those who did benefit initially when comparing the advantage of taking anti-depressants with not intervening in a pharmaceutical manner, over time those who were medicated fared no better than those who weren’t.

At least 350 million people worldwide are burdened with depression, the number one cause of global disability

Gotzsche also asserts that depression is not caused by a chemical disorder and by a lack of serotonin, the brain neurotransmitter that is boosted when anti-depressants are administered. Rather, ha says, anxiety, depression and other mental disorders result from a complex “interplay of psychosocial conditions, biochemical processes, receptors and neural pathways”.

The drugs, rather than correcting a chemical imbalance, are responsible for deranging brain chemistry, making it even more difficult to come off these medications once they have been initiated. Then there are the side-effects of medications, including weight gain and sexual dysfunction, which happens in more than half of those receiving anti-depressants.

So, if anxiety is not about a lack of valium and depression is not caused by an absence of serotonin, what triggers these maladies and what can be done to combat their pervasiveness without resorting to pharmaceutical remedies?

The cause of anxiety and depression

Research demonstrates that an excessive accumulation of free-radical stress and inflammatory substances lays siege to the cellular architecture of depressive brains. Free radicals are the unstable byproducts of our cells’ need to use oxygen to generate energy. While they can prime essential processes, once they assemble en masse their effects can be decimating.  Likewise with inflammation, which signals an overactive immune system.

It is this progressive destruction that derails mitochondrial function, the cellular batteries that power vital brain chemistry, which drives ongoing depression. The mitochondria of those suffering from depression have been shown to become so unhinged that they have become incapable of generating sufficient energy for the brain to function effectively. It is for this reason that antioxidants such as N-acetylcysteine have been trialled to neutralise the free radicals that promote depression.

Aside from scrambling mitochondria, inflammation undermines the production of serotonin, setting off an alternative biochemical pathway that leads to the seeding of quinolinic acid, a substance that further contributes to the dismantling of brain cells. In animals, disarming enzymes that normally foster antioxidant protection by increasing oxidative stress or the multiplication of free radicals has led to behaviour suggesting increasing anxiety, while inhibition of the oxidative process terminated this behaviour. If free radicals and inflammation are the primary instigators of anxiety and depression, what needs to be uncovered is the principles triggers for these events.

Food intolerance and the imbalance of gut bacteria

We might have to look no further than the foods we crave and the bacterial residents of our gut to find the source of insurgent free radicals and volatile inflammation. Gluten, found in wheat, rye, oats and barley and a core ingredient of cereals, bread, pasta, biscuits and cakes, is a non-digestible substance with no nutritional value. The overriding dogma has been that only those who have documented coeliac disease, usually determined by a bowel biopsy, need to avoid gluten. Now a whole new category of gluten-averse responders called the non-coeliac gluten-sensitives has been identified — folk who don’t have a medically identified reaction to gluten either by means of a bowel biopsy or a blood test but who would benefit from avoiding this substance.

Aside from bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal pain, symptoms often associated with irritable bowel syndrome, the harms of gluten extend way beyond the gut. Fatigue, migraine headaches, skin rashes, bladder infections, learning disorders, arthritis, muscle pain, balance disorders, anxiety, depression, autoimmune thyroid disease and cognitive decline culminating in dementia have all been attributed to the widespread havoc caused by gluten.

Ingesting gluten leads to gut inflammation, which then permeates the rest of the body and especially the brain. Combine this with the generation of oxidative stress, and a toxic stew is fomented that destroys those parts of the brain that orchestrate healthy emotional responses.

Gotzsche believes anxiety, depression and other mental disorders result from a complex “interplay of psychosocial conditions, biochemical processes, receptors and neural pathways”.

As we age, reduced levels of the protective gut bacteria called bifidobacteria makes us more vulnerable to harmful germs. It is the dominance of abnormal germs that gives rise to gut inflammation, oxidative stress and the disruption of brain chemistry, ultimately leading to abnormal mood states such as anxiety and depression. Research shows that supplementing with probiotic strains of lactobacilli alleviates anxiety and depression.

At least 350 million people worldwide are burdened with depression, the number one cause of global disability. Our fragile emotional landscape makes the allure of pharmaceutical balms all the more enticing. In not addressing the underlying disharmony, Peter Gøtzsche warns, the medical solution may lead to a regrettable alliance with the devil.


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Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.