Did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults? That’s 19% of our population! And these last 3 years certainly haven’t helped much.
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed, we’ve all felt anxious at some point or another in our lives. That heart racing feeling…the knots in your stomach…maybe even an inexplicable feeling of dread. If you have been diagnosed then you’ve probably tried medications or maybe you’ve tried the self help route with deep breathing exercises – but does it ever feel like nothing is really making a dent? Well, that’s where your gut health might come in!
How are anxiety and gut health connected?
Recent studies have shown that our gut is actually connected to our brain. Those with anxiety have often been found to have an imbalance of bacteria in their gut microbiome, which can lead to physical and mental symptoms such as digestive issues and mood swings. This means that if our gut is out of balance, it could lead to an increase in anxiety! So if you’re feeling like the meds and deep breathing aren’t cutting it…it could be a sign that your gut health isn’t in tip-top shape.
Having a healthy gut can help to reduce inflammation in your body and improve your mood. It can also help to regulate hormones that play a role in anxiety, including serotonin – our happy hormone. In fact, studies have shown that people with digestive issues are more likely to suffer from anxiety than those who don’t have digestive issues. This means that if you’re dealing with digestive issues, addressing them could be what’s needed to help improve your mental health!
The Vagus Nerve: Gut-Brain Superhighway
So how exactly is our brain connected to our gut? We have this gut-brain superhighway, called the vagus nerve that starts at the base of the brain, travels down both sides of the neck and the heart, all throughout the stomach area, and into the intestines. The vagus nerve is a sensory nerve and the longest cranial nerve in the body and is responsible for:
- stimulating the secretion of saliva, releasing of bile, and peristalsis (contraction and movement) of our bowels, which is a large part of our digestion.
- sending messages to the brain to produce or release oxytocin, our feel-good hormone.
- reducing anxiety, depression, stress and inflammation
Most people have an underactive vagus, also known as lacking vagal tone, due to being in a chronic stress response, whether from internal or external stress.
The Gut Microbiome
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are responsible for keeping your digestive system functioning. Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate mental processes like memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, which influences both mood and gut activity. Serotonin has a role in feelings of well-being and happiness, regulates anxiety, and is considered essential for sleep and concentration. When our gut microbiome is imbalanced, there may be less production of serotonin or by-products, like B vitamins, needed to build neurotransmitters. Dysbiotic gut microbiota can also counteract the ability to transfer neural signals through the vagus nerve and spinal cord routes disrupting the flow of things in our body.
Common “Root Causes” of Anxiety
Antibiotics don’t differentiate and kill all the good and bad bacteria in our gut microbiome, which can lead to dysbiosis and inflammation. Antibiotics also alter a specific protein that impacts nerve growth which makes us more vulnerable to anxiety. Just as damaging as antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), often used to relieve acid reflux, increase mood disorder risk by 60% with just 6 months of use (1). Because chronic use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), is reported to be damaging to the intestinal lining, it can lead to increased permeability, dysbiosis of gut microbiome, and inflammation.
Lipopolysaccharides or LPS, a compound found on bacterial cell walls, produce pro-inflammatory factors and free radicals that lead to a secondary inflammation in tissues. LPS can increase through a high fat diet and low fiber diet. Fiber is helpful in binding to LPS and making it easier to eliminate from your system. So if you’re eating a low fiber diet, those by-products of bacteria may continue to circulate in your gut – contributing to inflammation.
“Leaky gut” or intestinal permeability can also cause inflammation. The digestive tract becomes inflamed as a result of poor digestion, high stress, and several other factors. This inflammation results in a compromise of the tights junctions of the cells in our gut lining, thus allowing things like undigested food particles, toxins, and bacteria to enter the bloodstream. Once these undigested food particles get absorbed, the immune system reacts and attacks them since they are viewed as foreign, and therefore, a threat. This creates a vicious cycle of further inflammation, which then promotes more leaking.
Gut dysbiosis occurs when our healthy gut microbiome gets thrown off balance by bad bacteria or just an overgrowth of certain gut bacteria. When we have a dominance of certain gut bacteria, it can lead to tons of digestive issues, but also can cause mood disorders. For example, bacteria like E. coli, worsen the stress response, leading to inflammation and gut dysbiosis. Furthermore, a lack of healthy gut bacteria means they wouldn’t be able to break down dietary fiber to create short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs regulate metabolism, digest nutrients, inhibit growth of disease-causing bacteria, and can decrease LPS absorption, thereby reducing inflammation. Studies show certain bacteria, like Bifidobacterium Infantis and Bifidobacterium longum, ease and improve anxiety levels (2).
What are some steps to improve your anxiety naturally?
One of the best ways is to focus on improving your gut health through healthy lifestyles and nutrition.
- Eating fermented foods daily diversifies your gut microbiome. Fermented foods are probiotics that may decrease gut associated inflammatory signaling, which contributes to inflammation. Kimchi & sauerkraut contain lactobacillus strains that increase GABA, which produces a calming effect and helps with anxiety, stress, and fear.
- Aim for 30-40 different whole, plant foods weekly. The polyphenols in colorful, whole foods, feed different good bacteria in your gut while increasing diversity of your gut microbiome. Learn how I eat 30 plants per week.
- Don’t overlook foundations. Good sleep, daily mindfulness practices, balanced blood sugar , moderate physical activity all provide benefits to your gut and overall health. Not to mention, when these foundations are out of whack, it can contribute to increased inflammation.
- Probiotic supplements may help balance gut dysbiosis, especially adding specifically research probiotics that benefit anxiety. For example, Microbiome Labs developed a supplement that contains Bifidobacterium longum. ZenBiome Dual contains a dual-action probiotic combination designed to support both digestive comfort and mood self-regulation.
- Personalized Testing: Stool testing gives us insight into what bacteria are living in our gut and how well-balanced it is. When opportunistic bacteria are high, it can cause disruption in the gut hierarchy, leading to digestive symptoms and mood changes. From the results, we develop a personalized plan to remove bad bacteria and inflammation, restore proper digestion, rebalance your gut microbiome and repair the gut lining.
Don’t let anxiety rule your life! Need help making these changes? Find out more about how to work with a functiona dietitian to optimize your gut microbiome. Want even more details about anxiety and gut health? Check out my Masterclass. 🥰
- Laudisio, A., Antonelli Incalzi, R., Gemma, A., Giovannini, S., Lo Monaco, M., Vetrano, D., . . . Zuccalà, G. (2018). Use of proton-pump inhibitors is associated with depression: A population-based study. International Psychogeriatrics, 30(1), 153-159. doi:10.1017/S1041610217001715
- Michaël Messaoudi, Nicolas Violle, Jean-François Bisson, Didier Desor, Hervé Javelot & Catherine Rougeot (2011) Beneficial psychological effects of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in healthy human volunteers, Gut Microbes, 2:4, 256-261, DOI: 10.4161/gmic.2.4.16108
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