Gut feelings influence your mood and well-being. We have all experienced feeling anxious and those “funny feelings” in our stomach. Anxiety can cause “butterflies in the stomach”, to debilitating panic attacks and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Until recently it was believed that anxiety was caused by a combination of factors: genetics, environment, trauma and stress.
Modern research is beginning to understand the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. Digestive and bowel disorders are often correlated with poor mood; with almost one-third of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) found to have anxiety or depression. The basis for what causes anxiety is not well understood. Findings suggest that the disruptions in the neurons (nerve cells) and circuitry in your brain form the basis for anxiety yet new research in the area of the gut is indicating the health of your gut and the bacteria that live there play an intrinsic role in how you feel.
The Gut: Your second Brain
Your gut is equipped with its own reflexes and senses and is often referred to as your “Second Brain”. It controls gut behavior independently of your brain. Up to 90 percent of the cells involved in the responses in your gut will carry information to the brain rather than receiving messages from it. This means your gut as well as your brain influences your mood. The bacteria in your gut and digestive tract communicate via neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) in our enteric nervous system. A primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carries information from the gut to the brain and also from the brain to the gut, kind of like a neurotransmitter Super Highway!
There are specific neurotransmitters known to have effects on Anxiety:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), is a “chill out” neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety, neural excitation and promotes relaxation and sleep. Many anxiety medications work by interacting with GABA brain receptors. Certain gut bacteria produce GABA and others will increase GABA receptors in your brain.
- Serotonin creates feelings of self-worth and happiness and helps protect against both depression and anxiety. Ninety percent (90%) is manufactured in your gut.
Microbiome: Good Gut bacteria
Your nervous system, by regulating your gut can affect which bacteria live there. Certain bacteria are known to have positive effects and improve anxiety. Enhancing the types of bacteria in your gut, can help to improve your brain health. Current evidence indicates a healthy gut can curb inflammation, improve stress response/resilience and may reduce neuroticism and social anxiety. Studies indicate that those with healthy and diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety.
An imbalance of the “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut is called dysbiosis. Poor diet choices, food sensitivities, stress, antibiotics, illness and certain medications can contribute to dysbiosis.
Leaky Gut, Leaky Brain
Any food to which a person is sensitive/intolerant creates an immune response in the digestive tract. This can create changes and your gut lining that allows partially digested food, toxins or bacteria to leak from the small intestine to other areas of your body. this is Leaky Gut. In turn this triggers the release of Cytokines (minuscule signaling molecules) are that can travel from your gut to your brain, causing inflammation along the way. Research confirms that these cytokines from your gut can pass through (leak) across the blood brain barrier (BBB) to affect your mood.
Anxiety (and depression) is accompanied by chronic systemic (body-wide) inflammation. In particular chronic inflammation in the brain (neuro-inflammation) contributes to the development of and perpetuates these disorders. People with anxiety and depression may have a greater tendency to have brain inflammation.
Ways to improve your gut health
- Diet: Your body is made from the foods that you eat. A well balanced diet that contains the right servings of fresh vegetables, good quality proteins, beneficial fats and moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates will always be a good foundation for improving your health
- Increase fresh produce: at least 3 servings (1 cup = 1 serving) is one of the easiest ways to help reduce inflammation and encourage good gut health.
- Highly processed foods and drinks which contain refined sugars, trans fats and preservatives promote inflammation and blood sugar instability which can drive anxiety.
- Probiotics and prebiotics: Daily inclusion of prebiotic (encourages probiotic growth) and probiotic foods will help support good gut health. these two groups work together to help establish a health and resilient colony of good gut bacteria.
- Prebiotic foods: are usually foods high in resistant starch and includes jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks, beetroot, fennel and many pulses and legumes.
- Probiotics foods: naturally fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, Apple Cider Vinegar), Kombucha, Keffir, Kvass, Tempeh, Miso and quality whole-milk yoghurts are good sources of probiotic bacteria.
*It is interesting to note here that recent research has shown that artificial sweeteners have a detrimental effect on gut bacteria
- Reduce Gut permeability
- Bone Broth or collagen are foods that can help to repair the gut and reduce inflammation, 1-2 servings daily is recommended.
- Vitamin D: insufficient Vitamin D is linked with increased permeability. Check your vitamin D and talk to your naturopath or Nutritionist on the best supplement for you.
- Work with a naturopath or nutritionist to address dysbiosis: Informed and skilled support is beneficial for addressing dysbiosis. The causes of dysbiosis can be complex and multi- faceted. A natural health professional will address your specific case in a detailed and skilled manner to explore all underlying causes and provide a unique and tailored health care programme for you.
Desley Hatfield is a naturopath at our Ashfield Wellbeing Clinic. She has a specific interest in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, particularly in teens, and holds a Certificate in Mental Health First Aid.
Desley has a lived experience of depression, Bipolar and anxiety in her family and understands management of mood issues can often be complicated. Her practical and mature manner aim to make the road a little less bumpy!