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Depression, Lactose Intolerance, Tryptophan and Serotonin

Updated on December 27, 2011

Science and depression


Depression is more than a state of sadness. It is a condition characterized by chronic sadness and most often associated with a chemical imbalance. The most common chemical associated with depression is serotonin. This is the chemical that is adjusted within the brain by most anti-depressant medications. The mechanism of this process is not important for this article. This short article addresses the role of digestion in serotonin levels.

Serotonin production begins within the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is ultimately the result of the breakdown of tryptophan. I found out a few years ago as a lactose intolerant person I could not eat turkey. The consumption of turkey caused the same gastrointestinal distress as the ingestion of lactose (for me this is mostly milk and not all milk products). I began to wonder why this happened and if this could have had an effect on my mental health. I began to wonder if my inability to eat turkey and digest lactose would result in the decrease of serotonin that caused my depression (or at least contributed to it). My curiosity led me to some interesting articles with some interesting findings.

In an article by Ledochowski, Spernerunte Rweger, and Fuchs (1998), preliminary studies conducted on 30 women suggested that lactose intolerance had an effect on depression. Women with lactose intolerance scored higher on the Becks Depression Inventory than the women without the digestion problem. This article does not claim that lactose intolerance causes depression but that it can be related to higher depression scores. Not only did these women have higher depression scores but they reported irritable bowel syndrome and problems with premenstrual syndrome. This article also explores the idea that lactose malabsorption can interfere with the metabolism of tryptophan (not necessarily the kind in turkey) into serotonin, causing lower levels of serotonin in the intestines and lower level available for absorption into the blood and brain.

Depression of course has other contributing factors and the influences on brain chemistry are complex. Simply feeling sad and upset for long periods of time can affect brain chemistry. Does lactose intolerance play a role in understanding how it is that some people can be crippled by depression and overcome by more easily by feelings of sadness than others? I do not know but it would be interesting to see more studies and find out if people with lactose intolerance are more susceptible to clinical depression that those without the digestive problem.

My depression started as a child. I do not know why I was depressed as a child (could it have been due to my inability to absorb lactose). Later in life i experienced severe depression (I was hospitalized multiple times). The reason I was experiencing depression in my mid 20's was because i was dealing with the death of my father and was living in chronic pain from a car accident. I was also drinking too much and suffered from anorexia and bulimia. I often wonder if my depression was severe because of this pre-dispositon to low serotonin levels or would I have experienced the same levels of depression if my levels were normal at the time of these big life changes. I will never know and I did not start taking medications until after I tried to commit suicide. Would I have fared better had I been taking anti-depressants as a preventative medication before I experienced the death of my father. I am sure someday there will be more answers. There are so many questions when it comes to matters of physical and mental health. There are so many ways in which one influences the other.

I just thought I might bring to light one interesting study conducted linking physical sickness as a cause for mental illness. I find this link to be important in these economic times where mental health is increasingly taking a back seat to physical health. Many insurance companies do not cover mental health issues and many people do not think mental illness is a true medical problem. The increased knowledge of the link between mental and physical health (and not just physical well-being) may bring about more understanding and hope for those that need mental health care (they may just get some insurance) and make those with mental health problems feel less like they are simply a burden with no real medical problem.

Ledochowski, M., Spernerunte Rweger, B., and Fuchs, D. (1998). Lactose malabsorption is associated with early signs of mental depression in females: A preliminary report. Diseases and Science, 43, 11, p. 2513-2517.

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      4 years ago

      Gosh, this is what I was looking for the last five years. I am suffering from depression and a week ago I was searching on the web for a link between IBS and a lack of serotonin and actually I did not find any thing, however, I thought about a link of being lactose intolerance and a lack of serotonin in my brain. The First step toward covering is to quit dirty products and since that day I am actually feeling better, my mood is way better, able to go out, focus act... Finally feeling better day after day, lol weird :) thank you so much for your inspiring article.

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      hailey sailor 3 years ago

      this is gr8 omg thx 4 writing dis it means a lot to me lol ily :)

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      hailey sailor 3 years ago

      omg like this tot3s h3lped m3h! why d1dnt 1 f1nd th15! golly!!!! tnx guiss

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      hailey sailor 3 years ago

      before this i was lost but now im found

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      hailey sailor 3 years ago

      this article has really helped me learn more about my illness and it has helped me in more ways than one find out who i really am, before i had a sense of myself but i felt like a piece was missing and that piece was knowledge of my illness. i tried many times to look for a clear explanation about it but i have always been confused afterwards, but not this time i really feel like i learned a lot about myself and my condition by simply just reading this short but affective article. so i hope that if there are any more people similar to me by illness or just curiosity that you consider this websit it is truelly helpful and makes you feel like you are not alone in the world... at least that's what its done for me..

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      hailey sailor 3 years ago

      I showed this article to my friend Tagan Hockey and she was so inspired she instantly fell inlove with a guy who was lactose and depressed! love and first sip :)

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      ben hawthorne 3 years ago

      if it wasn't for hailey sailor i never would have met my true love tagan even though im sick she luvs meh

      thx

      to tagan:

      xoxo my love for you is xoxo

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