The idea that gut health and anxiety may be related has recently begun receiving increased interest. As research uncovers the different aspects of this connection, patients dealing with issues relating to either realm are looking into promising developments that could offer them some relief. Read on to find out more on the subject.
What is gut health, and how does it relate to anxiety?
Gut health is the condition of the gastrointestinal tract. It specifically refers to the gastric tract’s different roles in food processing, including:
Trillions of bacteria exist in the gut and make food processing possible.
Several factors contribute to one’s gut health:
In addition to its primary digestive functions, recent studies have also found gut health to play a role in the development of certain forms of cancer, as well as adult-onset diabetes. Finally, studies have shown that gut health may cause anxiety, in addition to linking gut health to several other mental health issues, such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, and memory loss.
There is a direct link between one’s gut and their brain. Called the gut-brain axis, this connection to the two-way communication between the central nervous system that includes the spinal cord and the brain, and the gastrointestinal tract’s enteric nervous system. The microbiome within the gut—the community of microorganisms living within the digestive tract—also takes part in this communication axis.
Due to the gut-brain axis, activities in the brain and gut can influence one another: as such, seeing a certain food can cause the gut to “rumble,” while digestive problems can influence the brain and cause mental health symptoms to appear.
When the gut’s microbiome is challenged due to changes in one’s diet, the introduction of antibiotics, or stressors, the very physiology of the microbiome changes. This can lead to increased intestinal permeability, so that bacterial metabolites, molecules, and bacteria begin to leak out of the digestive tract, in a phenomenon called leaky gut syndrome.
The increased intestinal permeability caused by leaky gut syndrome Increased intestinal effects on the individual’s immune system, which has been shown to lead to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), asthma, diabetes, mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and autism
Gastric inflammation causes the release of cytokines (a group of proteins) and neurotransmitters, which are able to pass the blood-brain barrier more easily in times of gastric stress. As a result, these errant molecules released by the gut are more likely to affect the brain, which has been shown to contribute to the appearance of anxiety, depression, and memory loss.
As a result of the gut-brain axis, anxiety symptoms can be triggered through changes in one’s digestive system. Such symptoms may be directly related to digestion, through loose stools, heartburn, or stomach pains. Or it can involve other symptoms of anxiety, such as quick breathing, racing thoughts, or hypervigilance.
Supplementing one’s diet with probiotics—living microorganisms, usually yeast or bacteria—have been shown to help improve one’s mental health, and particularly when it comes to anxiety.
A study from 2015 underscored the benefits of probiotics to one’s mental health. The study found that certain probiotics not only play a key role in healthy gut functions but are also involved in decreasing levels of cortisol—a stress-related hormone involved in the appearance of anxiety. Fecal transplants containing healthy microbiomes have similarly been found to help alleviate adverse symptoms.
A Mediterranean diet with a high intake of olive oil, fruit and vegetables, fish, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, and antioxidants, has also been shown to help avoid physical inflammation. Reduced inflammation has, in turn, been linked to reduced symptoms of anxiety.
A Western diet, on the other hand, has been discovered to not only cause detrimental physical health issues, but also to destabilize one’s mental health. Specifically, due to staples such as refined grains, processed and red meat, high-fat dairy products, saturated fats, and candy, a western diet has been shown to increase inflammation, and therefore anxiety. Instead, a balanced diet that includes healthy microbiotics, in addition to regular exercise, has been shown to alleviate gut-related inflammatory stressors.
Sleep quality also seems to affect the gut-brain axis. Research has shown that a lack of sleep, together with unhealthy eating, are correlated to inflammation, gut leakiness, inflammation, and immunosenescence.
Limiting exposure to inflammatory-causing medication can also promote gut health and benefit the gut health-anxiety connection. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are commonly used to treat acid reflux or peptic ulcers, are also highly associated with a decrease in gut microbiome diversity. PPIs were also linked to increased IBD prevalence and harm to one’s immune system.
Turning to psychotherapy can also improve gut health, and through that one’s mental health. Learning how to approach the stressors on one’s life can offer greater well-being in the long-term, as individuals who regularly experience psychosomatic gut issues begin to better understand their own body, its connection to the mind, and how to care for both of them. Regaining a greater level of calm, both physically and emotionally, can help break the cycle of feeding one’s anxiety and gut reactivity. And as an individual’s ability to manage their conditions and symptoms increases, they will hopefully be able to approach the available treatment options with a newfound willingness, and hope.