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The Correlation Between Gut Health and Anxiety

On a scale of 1-2020, how much does anxiety affect your day-to-day? Are you waking up with a ball of tension already in your stomach? You may be shocked to hear that there could be a correlation between your gut health and anxiety that you're experiencing.

Do you have trouble getting to sleep because of the thoughts constantly swirling in your mind about all the things you have to do this week, whether or not you should risk going to the holiday gathering with your family, where you put your social security card, and what your blood type is?

Do you experience regular cravings for something salty...and then something sweet...and then something salty…? Are you also struggling to lose weight and keep it off?

First of all, you are not alone. Not by a long shot. These things seem different, but they are actually much more closely related than you might think. So many of us experience these symptoms without even realizing gut health and anxiety might be connected. The cravings we experience might be exacerbated by the health of our gut and the severity of our stress.

Did you know that the health of your gut can actually cause or worsen feelings of anxiety? And the health of your gut is tied to swings in hormones, ability to process calories and other variables that make it more difficult to lose body fat?

According to a 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine, “dysbiosis and inflammation of the gut have been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.”

The study goes on to explain how an inflamed gastrointestinal tract leads to the release of inflammatory proteins called cytokines. An inflamed gut experiencing dysbiosis is also likely to lead to intestinal permeability - meaning that the junctions of the gut lining that are tightly held together in a healthy gut, become loose and allow for particles to get through and seep into the bloodstream and an unhealthy one. These particles can then move through the bloodstream, influencing brain function and “leading to anxiety.”

Beyond that, most of the body's serotonin and about half of our total dopamine are synthesized in the gut! If the microbiome is unbalanced and unable to properly synthesize these critical neurotransmitters, you can imagine the effect on mood and mental state.

Certain bacteria in the gut can pull more calories out of food than others.

An imbalance may cause higher amounts of the bacteria that can more efficiently remove calories from the food you eat, leading to an increase in the calories you absorb.This is one reason (of many) that I don’t like the calories-in-calories-out-only model in talking bout weight loss.

Sometimes we may be doing “all the right things” that our trainer tells us, and still not see our weight change. This makes us feel defeated. It can lead to feeling like we have failed in some way, when really we just don’t know about the other complex systems at work in our bodies.

We aren't equipped with the tools to deal with them.

So what should we do to improve the health of our gut, reduce anxiety and cravings, improve our mood, and get to our healthiest weight in the process?

Simple. Not easy.

Eat probiotic foods.

The best way to get any nutrient is through whole foods. Supplementation can help in some situations, but we should start here. Different foods have different strains of the beneficial bacteria that helps keep our microbiome balanced, so variety is important. Include yogurt (full fat) or kefir, fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, vegetables pickled in brine like Bubbies pickles, or fermented tea like kombucha.

Eat prebiotic foods.

These feed the beneficial probiotics. They also help to reduce inflammation and assist in the absorption of minerals in the gut. Foods like raw garlic, onion, leek, jicama and Jerusalem artichoke (among others) are some great examples you can include regularly.

Lower your carbohydrate intake and increase healthy fats.

A high-sugar and low-fiber diet feeds and promotes bad bacteria and increases chances of permeability of the intestinal lining. An optimal diet is lower in sugar and processed carbohydrates, high in fiber and includes healthy fats and proteins. Starchy carbohydrates (like grains, root veggies/tubers) should make up around 25-35% of your total caloric intake. Fibrous veggies, which also fall into the carbohydrate group, don’t count towards this total and can be consumed as a larger part of the diet.

Reduce environmental toxins.

Over 100k chemicals are approved for commercial use in the US, and the FDA only regulates a fraction of these. Many of them are endocrine disruptors. This means that they mimic our natural hormones in small doses like that which our bodies are used to, so we can't quite tell them apart. They can also accumulate in the glands and fat tissue over time, exacerbating the issue because the liver becomes over burdened with processing them.

Some chemicals like BPA are hugely problematic. It was initially created as an estrogen drug and was later banned because of the cancer causing risks. Now, we see it instead, in commercial plastic. Others, like pesticides and herbicides are literally made to kill bacteria and bugs. They are toxic to both good and bad bacteria - and the good bacteria in our gut is not spared.

You probably already know it’s a better idea to use glass or metal water bottles over plastic, but try to think about other sources of plastic and slowly swap out old plastic Tupperware containers for glass over time, for example.

I’m not suggesting you toss everything you own and spend a small fortune replacing it all, but aim to swap out commercial personal care products, makeup and cleaning products for the chemical-free and non-toxic versions, as you need to replace them. For a hormone-safe body soap and body oil, I love Hugh & Grace.

Lower chronic stress.

Stress is normal and necessary. It produces hormones and shifts energy to critical, life-saving systems when we need to fight off or run from a predator, for example. But when we experience prolonged, chronic stress, the body pulls oxygen and nutrients away from functions not required to fight or run. That can include diverting blood from the digestive system to the limbs - leading digestive upset, bloating or even IBS flares. Remember being told not to swim right after you ate? That’s because your body needs time to digest the food, rather than diverting resources to keeping you afloat.

Getting proper sleep, daily meditation, staying productive throughout the workday, spending time in nature, and starting the day with a brain dump or gratitude are effective strategies for chronic stress. We can also incorporate in-the-moment techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, quick meditations (1-3 minutes), coloring or listening to music, and taking a movement break.

If anxiety is affecting your day regularly, and you notice gut issues like bloating, irregular bowel movements and gas, remember that these issues are likely connected. You may even be holding onto excess weight because of both. In order to change all three, focus on what is going in and on your body. It’s not easy, but it is simple.

Let's tackle gut health and anxiety together.

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