A link between digestive health and anxiety might seem pretty implausible. When thinking of anxiety, it’s much more common to draw connections with circumstances such as relationships, financial or work stress, emotional trauma, or other outside factors.
However, a growing body of research is showing the positive link between an imbalance of gut bacteria and anxiety, meaning the foods you eat, the bacteria you’re exposed to and the myriad other factors that influence your gut bacteria could be at the root of your anxiety. Read on to learn how this imbalance might be causing anxiety and how to go about rebalancing the gut.
Your Second Brain
Many experts refer to the gut as your “second brain,” which suggests the critical role it plays in mental health. This “second brain” is called the enteric nervous system, which is made up of a network of neurons that live in the lining of the intestinal tract. Not only is this system a player in digestive function and health, but it connects to the vagus nerve of the brain and sends neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA which can have profound impacts on your mood and mental health.
Think of all of the engrained expressions we often hear: “gut feeling,” “gut reaction,” and “butterflies in your stomach.” These phrases, while idioms, convey the reality that, while higher cognitive function occurs in the brain itself, the gut has a powerful effect on how those functions develop.
The Role of Gut Bacteria
Just as all other systems in the body require the proper environment and tools to work well and efficiently, this second brain needs a healthy balance of gut bacteria to carry out its important functions. A recent animal study in Microbiome found that mice with an imbalance of gut bacteria exhibited more symptoms of anxiety.
The research suggested that these symptoms are likely due to an overabundance of microRNAs, which are molecules that “help keep cells in working order by managing protein production in brain regions involved in controlling anxiety.” Further research is needed, but the realization that gut bacteria have such a powerful impact on mental health is exciting and shows potential for future treatment options.
Various other studies on animals have found that an imbalance in gut bacteria can reduce GABA (the neurotransmitter that induces sleep and reduces anxiety), and that cortisol levels (the body’s primary stress hormone) can be lowered with certain prebiotic-containing foods.
How to Rebalance Gut Bacteria
If you suspect an imbalance in your gut bacteria, there are some simple steps you can start with today to rebalance your gut and potentially decrease anxiety.
Eliminate Gut-Offending Foods
Reduce or eliminate foods that can be harmful to the gut, such as refined grains and sugar, artificial sweeteners. When possible, it’s best to avoid processed foods. Typically, foods that come from nature (think veggies, fruits, meats, fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes) have the proper balance of fiber, micro and macronutrients to feed our gut bacteria in the right way. Also, it’s essential to identify any foods you might be sensitive or allergic to and eliminate them.
Get Plenty of Fiber
The average American eats far less fiber than is recommended, and fiber is closely linked with a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Excellent sources of dietary fiber include vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
Try Introducing Fermented Foods
Fermented foods have been eaten throughout history for their health benefits, and some excellent sources are plain, whole fat yogurt, unsweetened kefir, kombucha tea, kimchi, and raw sauerkraut. Try to include these foods in your daily diet. You can also take a probiotic supplement for a higher dose of probiotic bacteria.
Don’t Skimp on Healthy Fats
Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and avocado, and omega 3 fatty acids found in wild-caught, fatty fish improve healthy gut flora. On the other hand, unhealthy fats, such as highly processed vegetable oils, have just the opposite effect and can promote the growth of harmful gut bacteria.
If you suffer from anxiety and wonder if your gut bacteria might be to blame, start with these dietary shifts. If after a couple of months you notice no changes, working with your medical practitioner to get to the root of the problem is a good next step.