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One of the more common complaints I hear all the time from my clients is that they feel a great deal of anxiety, anger, and depression. Of course, when you are dealing with an autoimmune disease, or any illness for that matter, it makes sense that you would feel a lot of emotions due to the pain and uncertainty that goes along with any health condition. As a food nutritionist, when I talk with my clients on how to improve their mental health, I mention all of the typical things you would expect. It is essential to exercise, meditate, do yoga, go to counseling, and talk with friends and loved ones, among others. However, most people are surprised when I discuss how what they eat can dramatically affect their moods. You have probably heard of the mind-gut connection, but I was hoping to get a lot deeper. I’ll do that by starting with the immune system. 

Imagine your body as a well-protected kingdom, and your immune system is your army of defenders. Cytokines are like the messengers that your immune system uses to communicate and coordinate their response to threats. When your body encounters a threat, like an infection or injury, your immune system produces cytokines to signal the need for defense. These cytokines can trigger various effects, including inflammation and sickness behavior. This makes sense because not only is the body trying to get better as soon as possible, but it is also trying to stop others from getting sick.

Sickness behavior is a natural response to infection or injury that helps your body conserve energy and focus on healing. It can include symptoms like fatigue, decreased appetite, and sleep disturbances. While these symptoms are unpleasant, they are helpful in the short term. However, if inflammation and sickness behavior persist for a long time, they can start to have adverse effects on your mental health.

Cytokines can also affect your mood by interfering with the production of neurotransmitters, the chemicals your brain uses to send messages. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine play essential roles in regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. When cytokine levels are high, they can disrupt the production of these neurotransmitters, leading to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Here’s a simplified explanation of how cytokines can affect different aspects of mental health:

Anxiety: Cytokines can increase activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety. They can also decrease activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls emotions and impulses. This imbalance in brain activity can lead to heightened anxiety and anhedonia, which is the loss of pleasure or interest in once-enjoyable activities. This is cytokine IL-6. It’s the body’s way of keeping you away from other people and spreading your illness. 

Depression: Cytokines can decrease the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters that play essential roles in regulating mood and motivation. They can also increase the production of kynurenine, a metabolite of tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for the production of serotonin. Kynurenine can block the production of serotonin and contribute to symptoms of depression. This is cytokine IL-1, which helps you stay away from other people, and possibly sleep more. 

Hostility: Cytokines can increase the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that can lead to irritability and aggressive behavior. They can also decrease the production of oxytocin, a hormone promoting bonding and social interaction. This combination of effects can contribute to feelings of hostility and social withdrawal. This cytokine is TNF-alpha. It helps people not want to be around you and spread your illness. 

Fatigue: Cytokines can increase the production of adenosine, which is a molecule that promotes sleepiness. They can also decrease the production of energy-producing molecules like ATP. This can lead to feelings of fatigue and exhaustion. This one is also IL-1

What does this have to do with what people put in their bodies? Well, all of these cytokines increase when we are sick; however, they also increase when we consume inflammatory food. Inflammatory food can be a variety of things. The more common ones you may think of include processed meat, refined carbohydrates, fried food, sugary drinks, red meat, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, and sugar. This means the more you eat these types of food, the greater chance you have of increasing cytokines that cause depression, fatigue, hostility, and anxiety. 

Having this information can be life-changing for anyone who wants to take greater control of their mental health. By reducing these types of food, I have seen time and time again my client’s mental health improves. Have you ever noticed feeling emotional after eating inflammatory food? Here are some other ways cytokines can be affected by inflammatory food. 

  1. Disruption of the gut microbiome: The gut microbiome is a community of trillions of microorganisms that live in the intestines. It plays a vital role in digestion, immune function, and mental health. When the gut microbiome is disrupted, it can lead to inflammation. This inflammation can then trigger the release of inflammatory cytokines, which can travel to the brain and affect mood.
  2. Alteration of neurotransmitter levels: Inflammatory cytokines can also interfere with the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are essential for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. When their levels are disrupted, it can lead to symptoms of depression.
  3. Increased oxidative stress: Oxidative stress is a condition in which there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are harmful molecules that can damage cells. Antioxidants are molecules that protect cells from free radical damage. When oxidative stress occurs, it can lead to inflammation and contribute to depression.
  4. Reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels: BDNF is a protein that helps protect and promote brain cell growth. It is also involved in regulating mood and learning. When BDNF levels are low, it can increase the risk of depression.
  5. Impaired blood-brain barrier function: The blood-brain barrier is a protective barrier that separates the bloodstream from the brain. When the blood-brain barrier is impaired, it can allow inflammatory molecules to enter the brain and contribute to depression.

The great news is that. knowing that food can change the way you feel enables you to make different food choices to feel better. Diets like the Mediterranean diet, the Anti-inflammatory diet, or even the AIP diet are all amazing choices that can not only help you feel better physically, but mentally too. 

One-on-one nutrition counseling session focusing on autoimmune dietary strategies.

About Stephanie

Stephanie has earned the AIP Certified Coach Practitioner certificate, completed her internship at Elevate Health, clinical rotation at NUNM, then went onto open her own practice, Nutrition for Autoimmunity. She graduated from Portland State University and earned a master’s degree in Nutrition from National University of Natural Medicine.

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