” All disease begins in the gut.” (Hippocrates)
There is so much information out there these days on ‘Gut Health.’ Many symptoms well known to those of us suffering with mental health difficulties and addictions are common to the symptoms of an imbalance in ‘Gut Health’, that is, the balance of good and bad bacteria found in the lower intestine.
A strain of bad bacteria that can become overgrown in the gut is called ‘Candida Albicans.’ This overgrowth can be caused by heavy use of antibiotics, and the over-consumption of refined carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol. The list of symptoms includes things like brain fog, chronic fatigue, headaches, mood swings, anxiety and depression.
I have been trying to work with these issues for years, with varying degrees of success. A few years ago I embarked on an extreme Candida detox, followed by a very strict anti-candida diet plan. It was a total nightmare, and not surprisingly, quite unsustainable. But I’m trying a different approach this time, reading more, and doing things a bit more gradually. I’m trying to work with my classically bipolar tendencies towards all or nothing thinking, and my naturally obsessive, anxiety driven tendencies. So far…. touch wood…!! I haven’t had a drink for the longest time in living memory…!
Here is a haphazard summary of some of the information that has helped me to leave the wine on the shelf, at least for the time being. I’m not a medical practitioner, and all that is below is my interpretation and understanding of what I have read. I’ll leave a reading list at the bottom so you can check out the sources for yourself, and I’ll recommend that, if you’re struggling with any of the issues I mention in this article, that you seek help from a professional.
The idea with ‘Gut Health’ is basically, that our lower intestines are populated with multiple strains of bacteria. Some strains are ‘good,’ and their existence contributes to healthy digestion and overall well-being. These good bacteria can be fed with PRE-biotic foods, which are foods which nourish the bacteria. Dietary fibre is basically their main source of nourishment, so the more vegetables, especially tough green ones like broccoli and kale the better.
Then there are PRO-biotic foods. These are foods which actually contain strains of good bacteria and include things like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kimchi. Basically stuff that’s fermented. Consumption of these foods can also feed the bad bacteria though, so if you’re certain that Candida is a problem for you it is a good idea to seek advice. In fact it’s a good idea to do this anyway! Kombucha, for example, is a fermented tea often recommended for gut health. It contains wild strains of yeast, however, as well as small amounts of alcohol, which are we will see can be problematic for people suffering with an overgrowth of Candida.
I have suspected for a while that there must be some connection between alcohol addiction and a imbalance in our gut flora, or more specifically, Candida Albicans.
My first enounter with the word ‘Candida’ was in my early 20s when I worked with a Kinesiologist. A Kinesiologist is basically a holisitc practitioner who can identify allergies and intolerances. There’s a good summary of the principles (and an amazing practitioner if you happen to live anywhere near Devon in England!!) here:
The kinesiologist told me that she believed I had an overgrowth of Candida in my gut, after eliciting from me that I had a passion for red wine, blue cheese and marmite. These are, she explained to me, all foods which feed the bad bacteria, i.e Candida.
She explained to me that the reason I crave these foods is because Candida produces cravings for the foods which it needs to survive. At this point in my life I really could not have cared less. Although I was struggling terribly with IBS, Depression and Anxiety, the idea of giving up all that was just unthinkable. To be honest I thought she was quite mad. I just COULDN’T get my head around the idea that my diet could have such an effect. So the idea remained dormant for many years.
Years later, it was by looking at the problems that my Father and my Aunt were facing, both alcoholics, that caused me to think again about the links between gut health and addiction. My Father is a determined and committed sugar addict, and has a huge range of symptoms that point to an overgrowth of Candida, including massive cravings, IBS, multiple conditions relating to inflammation and chronic fungal infections. My Aunt has similar issues, as well as chronic oral thrush so severe that she finds it difficult to swallow anything but wine.
So I’ve started researching the links and it is super interesting, and just makes so much sense.
To look at things from another angle, the body needs to be generally healthy in order to fight off an overgrowth of Candida. A well functioning immune system is one of the most critical elements here. One study has shown that between 70 and 80% of our immune cells are found in the walls of the gut. An immediate effect of the consumption of alcohol is the weakening of our immune systems. This means that alcohol both feeds Candida, whilst simultaneously attacking the body’s best defence against it.
Even more interesting from the point of view of mental health, however, is the fact that an estimated 90% of the body’s stores of serotonin are found in the walls of the gut. Many scientists describe the gut as our ‘second brain.’ Studies with mice have shown that if you remove the bacterial colonies from the gut, the levels of Serotonin present in the brains drops dramatically. The super amazing fact is though, that once the colonies were returned, the effects were reversed. The conclusion of many of these types of studies has been, that GUT MICROBES MODULATE SEROTONIN LEVELS. So…. consuming alcohol affects gut microbes which affect serotonin levels. To me, this is intuitively obvious, but to read it in these terms helps me to see what it is I can DO about it. It breaks it down into pieces that I can ‘digest.’
And it’s all really interesting from the point of view of addiction. Depression and Anxiety are often massive triggering factors that cause people to reach for and to continue using alcohol and other drugs. Many people, including myself have described their use of substances as ‘self-medication.’ Looked at from this new perspective, however, it sounds like actually, wherever an imbalance in gut flora might have started, feeding the imbalance with alcohol simply strengthens the cycle of cravings, as the Candida demands more and more nourishment. And, as Candida takes over and replaces the healthy gut microbes, immunity and serotonin levels are also affected, thus exacerbating the reasons that the person drank to begin with. Of course this is all an enormous oversimplification. But I think it’s a really important and interesting piece of the puzzle. For me it’s been a world that’s really worth exploring.
A really useful resource foe me has been http://www.drlwilson.com. This guy is a doctor who treats addiction via nutrition, using a system called ‘nutritional balancing.’ Its pretty extreme, and very similar to the Candida diet. It basically involves to removal of all forms of sugar including fruit, with a strong focus on dietary supplements, especially essential minerals. Dr. Wilson’s view is that overconsumption of alcohol contributes in almost all cases to an overgrowth of Candida. It also leads to chronic mineral deficiences, for example zinc, magnesium, copper and iron. As the body is always seeking balance, it attempts to compensate for the mineral deficiences by absorbing and storing toxic metals which resemble that which the body lacks. This leads to further feelings of unwell-ness, which of course, tend to lead to higher levels of alcohol consumption.
Recovery is an individual process, and this stuff might not be helpful for everyone, but for me, it’s a part of the process. And it gives me something concrete to focus on!
If you’re interested in any of this stuff here’s a quick reading list:
Clinical and Experimental Immunology Journal (2008) Sept, 153
Dan Hurley, Psychology Today
A list of pre-biotic foods can be found here: