It’s time for Thanksgiving and I am really looking forward to spending the day with my family! The holidays are such a wonderful time for family, friends, and celebrations. However, this time of year can also do a real number on your gut microbiome and mental health.
Along with your welcomed guests, the holiday season often brings two unwelcome guests — stress and depression. That’s really not that surprising considering the holidays often present a dizzying array of demands — cooking meals, coming and going non-stop to parties, holiday recitals, shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining guests. I feel stressed just thinking about it!
Feeling run-down and spread a bit too thin can be expected this time of year. However, if you’re living a hectic lifestyle and eating an imbalanced diet during the holidays, it’s going to take its toll on your gut microbiome and mental health. After all, the two are connected in so many ways. If one is off-balance, it will affect the other.
I’m going to tell you how your gut microbiome and mental health affect one another and offer you solutions to help you have a gut-healthy and stress-free holiday season. First, let’s talk about the gut microbiome-mental health connection.
Your Gut Microbiome and Mental Health
Your brain and your gut continuously talk to each other. This conversation is known as the gut-brain axis. It involves your central nervous system (CNS) and your enteric nervous system (ENS).
Your central nervous system consists of your brain and your spinal cord. It controls your thoughts and emotions, along with your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and the release of some hormones. Your enteric nervous system, also known as your “second brain,” consists of 200-600 million neurons that move throughout your digestive system.1
The ENS works in concert with your CNS, however, your ENS regulates some gastrointestinal functions independently, such as moving food through your gut and bowel movements. Your ENS also controls the release of some neurotransmitters, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin.2
A Healthy Gut Microbiome Supports Good Mental Health
Serotonin and other neurotransmitters travel from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. This is the body’s longest nerve that emerges directly from the brain. Chemical signals travel both from the gut to the brain and vice versa. Because of this, those with gut issues are at a higher risk of mood imbalances, anxiety, and depression. This is where serotonin comes into play.
This “feel-good chemical” is best known for its positive effects on your mood. Healthy serotonin levels help you feel calmer, happier, more focused, and less stressed. However, your body releases cortisol from your adrenal glands in response to stress. Small amounts of stress are just a fact of life and are unavoidable. Constant stress, however, impacts your gut microbiome. Let’s dive more into stress and how it affects your gut health.
Stress and Your Gut
I often talk about how the gut is the gateway to health, and how a damaged gut microbiome can impact your mental health. When you experience any kind of stress, whether physical (slamming on your brakes), emotional (going through a heartbreak), or mental (overloaded at work), your body processes it the same – through the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands respond by creating a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol, which affect both your digestive system and your immune system (80% of which is located in your gut). When your stress response kicks in, your digestive system shuts down. For example, if you’re running from a predator, you need blood flow concentrated in your limbs for fleeing and your brain for problem-solving, not in your gut for digesting your lunch.
Stress Makes Your Gut Microbiome Vulnerable
In this vulnerable state when the digestive system is suppressed or shut down, and your immune system is suppressed, harmful bacteria are able to multiply unchecked. The digestive system is temporarily unable to fight off bad bacteria by producing enough good bacteria to combat them, which can lead to imbalances in your gut microbiome.
What’s more, a shortage of good bacteria and an excess of bad bacteria can cause you to experience more stress because 95% of your serotonin (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that regulates mood, well-being, and sleep) is produced in the gut, and this production is slowed when you’re battling yeast overgrowth, a parasite, or other gut issues such as leaky gut or SIBO.
Stress isn’t the only part of the holidays that can impact your gut microbiome and mental health. Holiday and seasonal depression are more common during the winter months, and it can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome and mental health.
Depression and The Holidays
While the holidays can be a joyful and happy time for many of you, it can also be a sad time for some. It is estimated that 16.1 million adults in the U.S. are affected by depression in a given year.3 During the holidays, approximately 40% of U.S. adults struggle with depression.4
One of the root causes of seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is the overproduction of melatonin, which is produced by the hormone serotonin.
Serotonin, The Gut Microbiome And Mental Health
Serotonin is one of four “happy hormones” your body produces, along with dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these hormones performs different functions and provides “happy” feelings, yet serotonin is the one that regulates your mood.
A serotonin deficiency is linked with depression, and in some cases, anxiety. Many antidepressant medications are designed to block your brain’s serotonin reabsorption for this very reason. By blocking serotonin reuptake, more of this feel-good hormone is available in your brain. However, these medications often have awful side effects and don’t address the root cause of your depression.
Serotonin And Sleep Cycles
Serotonin plays a role in maintaining healthy sleep-wake cycles. Your pineal gland produces the sleep hormone melatonin from serotonin. If you’re low on serotonin, your body will lack the building blocks needed for proper melatonin production. This is why many people suffering from depression experience insomnia as well.
As it gets darker earlier, your body signals it’s time to release melatonin into your bloodstream. With longer periods of darkness in the winter months, your body uses more serotonin to make melatonin. This is why you may feel more depressed in the winter than in the summer. Getting outside is a great way to boost your serotonin levels naturally. I’ll discuss more on ways to take care of your mental health and gut microbiome later. First, let’s go over the symptoms of depression.
Symptoms of Depression
Not everyone who has depression has the same experience. However, the most common signs and symptoms of depression include:5
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness; thoughts of death or suicide
- Tendency to oversleep
- A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Heaviness in the arms or legs
- Low energy and decreased physical activity
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fear of social rejection and avoidance of social situations
For many people with depression, symptoms usually are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities or relationships with others.
If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or live online chat
The good news is there are ways to overcome seasonal depression and manage your stress. Let’s talk about how to keep your mental health and gut microbiome healthy this holiday season.
How to Support Your Gut Microbiome and Mental Health
The stress and depression during the holidays can really pile on. Stress and depression can take their toll on your gut microbiome and contribute to leaky gut, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, and a plethora of autoimmune conditions. Here are 6 ways you can keep your mental health and gut microbiome healthy so you can enjoy this joyful time of year.
Prepare and Have a Plan
Staying organized and making plans is an excellent way to keep your mental health and gut microbiome strong. Prepare for the situations you can control, such as your schedule and your diet, and don’t stress over situations you cannot control.
So many holiday festivities center around food, and unless you’re hosting, you won’t have much say over what’s being served. That’s why I always keep a bottle of my Complete Enzymes in my purse, just in case I get exposed to gluten. You might not be able to convince your family to leave the butter out of a recipe, however, you can bring a dish that you know you can eat.
Indulge in something sweet, like a gluten-free cookie or these Peppermint Brownie Bites. Experiment with new recipes and show your loved ones that gluten-free, dairy-free cooking can be delicious. If you have an autoimmune disease, these recipes are compliant with an autoimmune Paleo (AIP) diet or can be easily adapted.
Set Aside Time for Yourself
The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family and friends. However, it’s also important to make time for yourself to take care of your mental health and gut microbiome. I know that can be hard with so much demand on your time. However, even something simple as taking a bath or meditating for 30 minutes can help reduce stress.
I strongly encourage you to set aside time out of every day to do something that helps you unwind. Some of my favorite activities to help manage holiday stress include:
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salts.
- Meditating and breathing exercises help calm my holiday anxiety and manage holiday stress. I use the app HeartMath.
- Listening to music
- Spend 30 minutes a day in my Sunlighten Sauna
- Reading a book
There are many ways to take time for yourself to take care of your holiday mental health and gut microbiome. Find something you enjoy doing and set aside time for yourself to do it. No matter how busy you think you are, it’s possible to find pockets of time to devote to yourself.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Sleep is important to help manage stress and depression. Getting enough sleep will keep your gut microbiome and mental health strong this holiday season. Ideally, you spend at least a third of your life asleep, however, that can be very difficult during the holidays. I have been there.
It can be difficult in the winter months to regulate your body temperature due to the cold air outside and the warm air in your home as you run your heater. I have a hard time sleeping when its warm in my home.
When I’m having trouble falling asleep is with my chiliBLANKET by ChiliSleep. It offers the comfort of a weighted blanket with the sweat-free sensation of cooling water channels. If you’re a fan of weighted blankets yet live in a hot climate, the chiliBLANKET is the perfect way to create a cozy cocoon while staying dry and cool.
Get Enough Vitamin D
Getting enough vitamin D is essential during the winter months. With shorter days and less sunlight, especially in colder climates, your body is likely not getting enough vitamin D. In fact, 41.6% of American adults are thought to be deficient in Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is a hormone that’s produced in the skin from the sun. When you’re exposed to sunlight, ultraviolet radiation penetrates your epidermis and turns provitamin D3 to previtamin D3. You can also get Vitamin D from foods such as fatty fish like mackerel and salmon, beef liver, and egg yolks.
Since vitamin D acts as a hormone, it supports the release of neurotransmitters into your bloodstream, including serotonin.6 Brain serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan by tryptophan hydroxylase 2, which is transcriptionally activated by vitamin D hormone. Eating tryptophan-rich foods such as free-range chicken is a natural way to support serotonin levels.
Eat & Drink Healthfully
It’s ok to have the occasional sweet treat or drink. At this time of year, moderation is essential when it comes to sugar and alcohol, however these toxic and inflammatory foods can lead to depression and affect your mental health and gut microbiome.
I also recommend refraining from caffeinated drinks. Caffeine increases cortisol production in the body, which increases levels of stress, while alcohol can increase depression. Mocktails are a great substitute for alcoholic drinks during the holidays.
I recommend having a plan if you accidentally get exposed to gluten or stray from your dietary protocol. It’s best to prepare supplements to support your gut health such as Complete Enzymes, Coconut Charcoal, and probiotics.
Support Your Adrenal Glands
Holiday stress can impact your gut microbiome and mental health and make you feel less inclined to be a part of holiday activities. When you’re stressed, your hypothalamus (the part of your brain that recognizes stress) sends signals to your pituitary gland, in turn signaling your adrenals to produce and release stress hormones.
Your immune system responds by producing inflammation. This kind of constant inflammation is not only a recipe for adrenal fatigue, it also leaves you with a weakened immune system and may put you on the path to autoimmunity.
I recommend supporting your adrenal glands with Adrenal Support. It includes a variety of the most effective and well-researched adaptogenic herbs, amino acids, and vitamins to help your adrenal glands handle everything coming their way.
The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time, yet for so many of you, it can be a sad or stressful time and take its toll on your mental health and gut microbiome. By following the above tips you can have a fun and happy holiday season and keep your mental health and gut microbiome healthy.
- The enteric nervous system and gastrointestinal innervation: integrated local and central control. John B Furness, et al. Advances in experimental medicine and biology vol. 817 . 2014.
- Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Philip Strandwitza. Brain research vol. 1693. 2018.
- Understanding Anxiety and Depression: Facts & Statistics. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. 2021.
- Raising Mental Health Awareness During the Holiday Season. Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program. 2021.
- What Is Depression? . . American Psychiatric Association. 2021.
- Can Taking Vitamin D Help Boost Serotonin Levels?. Amanda Knaebel. San Francisco Chronicle. 2018.