Anxiety is something that many people struggle with. In their attempts to manage or treat their anxiety, people often turn to some form of psychotherapy or prescription medication. While these methods have their place, an important factor that people often overlook is their gut health.
It is not common knowledge, but our gut health and our mental health are actually extremely interconnected. Many psychological conditions and mood disorders are caused by an imbalance in the gut. Similarly, gut health ailments and digestive disorders are often caused by an imbalance in the mind, such as chronic stress or anger. By restoring the gut back to proper health, it is possible for some people to find relief from mental and emotional issues—just as restoring calmness and balance to the mind can help to ease some digestive ailments.
What is the Gut-Brain Axis?
Critical to understanding the way that our gut and brain influence each other is the understanding of what researchers call “the gut-brain axis.” The gut–brain axis is the two-way biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system.
Our nervous system extends throughout our body, with many nerve centers located in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The nerves in the GI tract are referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS) which is also often referred to as our “second brain.”
The brain has a direct effect on the enteric nervous system, and can send signals directly to the stomach and intestines. In the same way, the stomach and intestines can send signals directly to the brain. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person's stomach or intestinal distress can either be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.
The Gut Microbiome
Within your gut there are trillions of microorganisms. These microorganisms and their genetic material make up your “gut microbiome.” These microorganisms, mainly comprising bacteria, are involved in numerous functions critical to your health and wellbeing. They play a key role in digesting the food you eat, as well as with absorbing and synthesizing the nutrients from your food. These microorganisms are involved in many other important processes that extend beyond your gut, including your metabolism, body weight, and immune regulation, as well as your brain functions and mood.
Gut Bacteria Produce Hormones & Neurotransmitters
In recent years researchers have discovered that gut bacteria play critical roles in the production of important neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that send information to other neurons, allowing them to communicate.
Some of our hormones also act as neurotransmitters. For example, the hormone dopamine, which plays an essential role in our mood and feelings of happiness and pleasure, acts as an important part of our brain’s reward system.
Serotonin is another important hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body, enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other, and helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion.
Interestingly, researchers have found that gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin! This means that nearly all of our serotonin—the primary hormone responsible for our mood and feelings of happiness and well-being—is produced within our gut. Researchers have also found that about 50 percent of dopamine is produced in the gastrointestinal tract as well by enteric neurons and intestinal epithelial cells.
If our gut health is out of balance, it can have a significant impact on the production of these important hormones, and as a result, our mood and our mental health can suffer. This is one of the clearest examples of how poor gut health and anxiety are linked.
Poor Gut Health & Mood Disorders
Poor gut health can disrupt the health of our gut microbiome. When our microbiome is disturbed it can disrupt the production of serotonin. This deficiency in serotonin can lead to psychological issues and mood disorders such as:
- Depressed mood
- Impulsive behavior
- Cognitive decline
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Suicidal behavior
Low serotonin levels can also affect many physical systems like:
- Blood clotting
- Energy balance
- Body sugar balance
- Cardiac function
- Liver function
- Immune system response
- Pain production
As a result of the impact that low serotonin levels have on the body, this deficiency often leads to physical conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, fatigue, osteoporosis, and gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome.
What Causes Poor Gut Health?
Before addressing how you can better manage your gut health and help to rebalance your serotonin levels, it’s important to understand what causes poor gut health in the first place. The gut, in particular the gut microbiome, is much more sensitive than most of us realize. If we really understood this complex and important community of bacteria, we would have an entirely different approach to our diet, lifestyle, and overall health.
We certainly wouldn’t just consume any food on the basis that it tastes good, but would instead consider how what we are eating is going to impact our body, our gut, and therefore, our mood. A lack of understanding of the importance of eating with this kind of awareness has lead most people to be guided by their tongue and not their gut.
Many people eat whatever tastes good to satisfy their craving without thinking twice about how it is influencing their health. The first step to restoring your gut health is to be aware of the fact that everything you consume either contributes to your health or your illness, and to make wise choices about the things that you put in your body. Some of the biggest contributors to poor gut health include:
- Processed foods (junk food, foods high in processed sugar, added preservatives, etc.)
- Food allergens (wheat, dairy, shellfish, peanuts, soy)
- Foods grown with toxic chemicals and pesticides
- Antibiotics (can kill off many important gut bacteria)
Now, you can imagine how a fast-paced society that praises productivity, processed junk foods, alcohol, and other toxic substances, might also be a society in which much of the population suffers from poor gut health. This is why digestive ailments are on the rise, and why each year 62 million Americans are diagnosed with a digestive disorder. This may also explain why it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a mood disorder or other mental illness.
The point is, many people either do not have any interest in their health, or simply do not know any better due to a lack of education and awareness about the importance of gut health and how it impacts our mood and our happiness. Thankfully, this is changing as the importance of gut health becomes more popular.
How to Restore Your Gut Health
Each person has an entirely different gut microbiome, as well as an entirely different state of health. Therefore, everyone will have a different journey when it comes to restoring their gut health. For some, it may take as little as a few weeks. For others, it may take many months. Regardless, the recommended process for restoring the gut health is the same.
Most gut health professionals agree that following the 4 R’s is a great way to get your gut health back on track. The 4 R’s are:
The mind and body influence each other, and since we are also discussing anxiety and mood disorders here, we’ll keep that in mind as we explore these 4 R’s in more depth.
The first R is Remove. This step encourages us to remove all of the toxic substances and foods that may be negatively impacting our gut health. Take an inventory of the food that you eat and the products that you use on a regular basis. Take note of everything you put in or on your body. Also consider all of the media that you consume—the music, games, movies, social media posts, etc.
Now, consider how all of these might be affecting your health, and remove the things that have a negative impact on your physical or mental health. Are their foods in your diet that contain toxins, chemical preservatives, excess sugar or fat, or other harmful substances? Are there foods that are causing inflammation? Are there certain types of media that you are consuming that could be negatively impacting your mood? Do you have lifestyle habits that harm your body or mind?
Be honest with yourself and look at all of the things you are consuming, then remove those things from your life so they can no longer harm your health or act as obstacles to your healing.
The second R is Replace. This refers to replacing all of those foods and substances that we removed in the first step with more healthy options. For example, replacing inflammatory foods for anti-inflammatory foods, replacing junk food with healthy snacks or alternatives, replacing toxic media with media that supports your well-being.
The third R is Repair. If you’ve suffered from poor gut health, then you’ve likely damaged some of the tissue in the gut or have compromised the fragile intestinal barrier that prevents toxins from entering your bloodstream. Now that we’ve removed toxic foods and replaced them with healthier foods, we need to focus more on repairing our gut tissue with certain nutrients. For example, colostrum, butyric acid, and amino acids like L-glutamine play a key role in repairing and rebuilding the gut lining. Herbs like licorice root or slippery elm can also trigger the production of mucous that helps to coat the mucous membrane and soothe irritation in the intestinal wall.
The fourth R is Recolonize (sometimes referred to as Reinoculate). This refers to recolonizing the gut microbiome with beneficial probiotics, and feeding these probiotics with prebiotic-rich foods in your diet. Together, this will allow a healthy community of gut bacteria to repopulate your gut, which will help to protect and maintain your gut health long-term.
The 4 R’s can help you reset your gut and get your gut health back on track. It may take a few months of following this process to see lasting results, but most people begin to notice changes in their health and mood in as little as a few days. After following the 4 R’s, it is important to maintain your gut health by continuing to avoid the foods, habits, and substances that you removed in step 1, and to consume the healthier alternatives that you replaced them with in step 2.
Other Considerations for Anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety or any other mood disorder, then focusing on your gut health is a great place to start to make some positive changes. In addition to focusing on your gut health, consider these other important factors:
- Nutrition/food quality
- Hydration/water quality
- Amount of regular exercise
- Sleep quality
- Amount of time dedicated to low-stress activities (yoga, meditation, walking, baths, etc.)
- Social and physical environment
All of these play an important role in both our physical and mental health. You can make a great positive impact on your health by focusing on these areas. In addition, a professional therapist may also be able to offer invaluable insights into your personal situation that can help you to find balance.