This article, written by Meghan Toups, was originally published in Expanded Consciousness
When treating anxiety, my clients and I work together to help balance different aspects of life: body, mind and spirit. But what if I told you that science is showing that the bacteria in your gut can directly affect your behavior and emotions…. This might be surprising for many, however it’s a critical, and often overlooked factor in treating anxiety.
Healing and restoring balance to one’s digestive tract, ideally with the help of an integrative medical doctor can make a huge difference in symptoms. Your digestive tract can be damaged by many factors such as chronic stress, medication use and exposure to foods that aren’t great for your body. Many factors besides poor digestive health may contribute to your symptoms. Maybe you’re in an unhealthy relationship, suffer from low self-esteem, struggle with panic attacks, or worry needlessly about little things. No matter what the issues that are contributing to your anxiety, experiencing it can leave you feeling isolated, scared and mentally exhausted. When it comes to treating emotional distress, utilizing multiple agents of change is the most beneficial way to experience relief. For example, when treating anxiety, it’s extremely beneficial not only to receive therapy, but also to change your diet, exercise, patterns of self-talk, methods of self-care and introduce relaxation techniques. Working on balancing your gut flora can be a very healing addition to the aforementioned therapies.
While research is still emerging, science is supporting the idea that your gut bacteria effects your emotional health. Dr. Michael Gershon first brought this groundbreaking science to the public with his lab studies with rodents. He was first prompted to study the connection because of his interest in serotonin; 90% of our serotonin is produced and manufactured in the gut! He wrote, The Second Brain, which describes the role of the digestive tract in regulating emotional health and decision making.
Some fascinating research has been conducted to further this idea. Researchers swapped the bacteria in anxious mice and fearless mice by changing diet, adding antibiotics or adding probiotics. They found that the timid mice actually started taking more risks and acting more gregarious and the opposite also happened: the fearless mice acted more timid. In a 2013 study published in Gastroenterology, researchers studied the effects of probiotics in humans. After 4 weeks of ingesting probiotics, they scanned the brains of each participant. The researchers found subtle signs that the brain circuits involved in anxiety were less reactive.
But, how do the brain and the gut communicate? The brain and the gut are in constant communication via the vagus nerve, a large nerve that connects the two. The concept of “gut feeling” and butterflies in your stomach is actually a real thing! In a study conducted in Ireland, researchers found that when the vagus nerve was cut in mice, they no longer saw the brain respond based on changes to the rodent’s gut flora. Scientists have also begun to study certain neurochemicals that have not been described before being produced by certain bacteria, thus suggesting that gut microbes can produce their own version of neurotransmitters. This is another way that gut microbes may communicate with the brain.
Wondering how to nourish your digestive tract? Here are 4 tips.
1.) Start eating more and more WHOLE foods. Limit processed foods, sugar, alcohol and caffeine. Choose fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and lean proteins. Check out this article from Dr. Mark Hyman on the subject. Start with small changes. Choose a sweet potato instead of fries, eat half of your dessert rather than the whole plate, or order an open faced sandwich. Changes should feel do-able, not overwhelming and anxiety producing!
2.) Increase your body/food awareness. Notice how you feel after eating. Take note of fatigue, bloating, anxiety, gas, reflux or any other symptoms that you might be experiencing. This will allow you to start mapping patterns and become aware of what foods might be troublesome for you. If you continually eat foods that don’t react well to your body, it can damage your delicate digestive lining and balance of good bacteria. Log your findings for at least a week.
3.) Eat foods rich in probiotics. This can include yogurt, kefir, fermented foods and sauerkraut.
4.) Reduce Stress. Stress can damage your very thin digestive lining. Practice relaxation techniques, use positive self-talk and engage in activities that bring joy. Managing stress will help you to heal from the inside out and also reduce anxiety symptoms.
Most of all, if you are struggling with anxiety, reach out for help from a therapist who specializes in anxiety or your doctor. Relief from symptoms is possible!
Wishing you the best of health,