I rarely see someone in my practice with anxiety that doesn’t also have digestive issues. Whether it be bloating, heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea, there’s usually a Pepto Bismol commercial of symptoms happening. That’s because there’s a huge link between your brain and gut.
You’ve probably heard of the central nervous system which is your brain and spinal cord, but there’s also the enteric nervous system located in your gut. The two can communicate back and forth. You have a physical brain-to-gut nerve called the vagus nerve, named after the Latin word for “wandering” as it travels far and spreads out. There are also hormonal and microbial signals between the gut and the brain. At first the thought of microbes present in the body creeped me out. You mean I have all this bacteria just sitting around in my body? But then I realized they are there to help! These bacteria, of which you have over 2kg, help process nutrients, balance blood sugar, keep your immunity up, and you guessed it…they have a role in mood and stress response. These bacteria produce serotonin and GABA, two important neurotransmitters for mood and anxiety. GABA is one of the most important neurotransmitters for anxiety as it’s inhibitory, like a brake pedal to help slow the anxiety response. These neurotransmitters don’t just act in the brain though; they also affect gut motility and the rate of nutrient absorption.
Stress and Good Bacteria
There is a bi-directional relationship with stress and bacteria. When you’re stressed or anxious, the amount of good bacteria goes down. But when you work on gut health and get your good bacteria numbers up, it actually lowers the stress response in the body. How? Well, good bacteria in your gut can lower cortisol levels—your main stress hormone and also alter expression of GABA receptors—which helps you feel calm.
What is this “good bacteria” exactly? There’s loads of species, but Lactobacillus Rhamnosus has been studied heavily. When animals are given L.Rhamnosus it modifies the GABA system in the brain and leads to decreases in anxiety. This species is found in kefir, or in many probiotic supplements. There’s also evidence that L.Helveticus and B.Longum can provide resiliency against stress.
If you want to work on your anxiety, your gut health should be a key area of focus. Add in fermented foods for a healthy dose of friendly bacteria. Some options are:
Don’t forget about prebiotic containing foods like Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, onions, asparagus, and oats, which feed the good bacteria. I’m a big fan of sauerkraut as it supplies both probiotics and prebiotics.
Also focus on stress relief techniques like yoga, meditation, or breathing. Because remember the relationship goes both ways; working on your gut health reduces your anxiety, and separately reducing your anxiety and stress can boost your gut health! If you want to learn more about the relationship between your gut and anxiety book a FREE meet n’ greet to get started!
Heather is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist trained by the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. She also has a Masters of Science in Public Health and a Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology both from the University of Waterloo.
Heather specializes in personalized nutrition using live, natural, and whole foods and looks at many factors surrounding food choices such as stress, sleep, mood, and lifestyle. She has a strong background in mental health and is passionate about promoting its connection to nutrition. Heather sees clients who are overworked, overstressed, and overtired and empowers them to bring their body back into balance. She also specializes in plant-based diets, being vegan herself since 2013. In her spare time, you can find her scouring dog parks for animals to pet, or searching for the city’s best smoothie!
Heather Lillico, MSc, RHN, RYT