The Gut-Brain and Young Adult Depression


“Peter” is 27 years old and has been battling depression since his junior year of high school. He has taken one from every category of psychiatric medication through the years, and only benefitted modestly. The severity of his depression has fluctuated from mild unhappiness to spending days in bed that left him absent from work. For 10 years, even with treatment, the depression was never completely gone.

Until Peter’s girlfriend recently started a new diet. And since they take most of their meals together and she shops for groceries and cooks meals for their household, Peter was also on the diet. They are eating mostly fruits and vegetables, with lean meats, nuts, and grains like quinoa, but no bread, pasta, cereal, or refined sugar. Before his girlfriend brought this new lifestyle change, Peter lived on a steady diet of foods that were cheap and easy to grab and go. Most of his meals came on a bun from a drive through.

Since he started the diet, Peter is beginning to notice a lightening in the depression. He feels better than he can remember feeling in a decade. He has begun to suspect that something in his diet was contributing to the depression. He wishes he had known that food played a role in the depression a decade ago. He would have done anything to escape chronic depression.

As soon as Peter started driving, he stopped eating healthy home cooked meals. As he became more independent, his diet got worse. Like a lot of teens and young adults, he went out for food rather than shopping and cooking for himself. He knew his diet wasn’t healthy, but never considered that junk food affected depression. Neither his family nor his doctor has ever brought it up either.

Peter’s experience with his improved diet’s effects on his mood mirrors an increasing happening around the country. People make changes to their daily nutritional plan for their health (or even because the change was imposed by someone else) and their mood improves. Scientists and experts are calling this the ‘’gut-brain’’ connection and hypothesizing that the bacteria that live in the intestines change when we change the foods we eat, and that the balance of those bacteria has the capacity to alter mood.

These findings about how the gut affects mental health raise questions about how teen and young adult depressions start and how they continue over time. The findings raise questions about the typical American child’s diet, and risks it might pose to their mental health. There has been talk of limiting food assistance to dry goods (most of which would be forbidden on a diet of fresh foods like Peter’s), there are questions about the risks to the poor and disabled of restricting nutrition. Fresh, healthy food costs more than packaged and preserved.

If “you are what you eat,” then we need to talk about what the kids, teens and young adults are eating as their rates of mental health disorders are soaring to record highs. From school lunches to fast food, we may not be giving kids and teens a fair start for healthy gut-brain balance, or the knowledge to manage their health more effectively in young adulthood.

Posted on March 26, 2018 .