How Does Gut Health Affect Anxiety? Functional Medicine Doctors Chime In.
If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone. In the United States, 40 million adults say they experience anxiety symptoms. With many mental health issues going undiagnosed, this number is likely even higher.
Despite the fact that anxiety is a common mental health challenge, your anxiety situation is unique to you. At Five Journeys, we want you to know that you are seen, heard, and understood—whether you struggle with anxiety or not. Because your anxiety may be caused by a combination of environmental, social, and genetic factors, your anxiety treatment should be equally unique.
When it comes to treating anxiety, mental counseling and medication are the most common conventional methods. However, anxiety has a root cause, and conventional medicine tends to treat merely outward symptoms.
Does this mean that you should stop using anxiety medication? Absolutely not. There is nothing wrong with taking anxiety medication. However, there may be additional methods to find more complete healing.
What if we told you that anxiety issues may be related to your GI tract?
Your Gut is Known as Your Second Brain
Your gut microbiome is comprised of millions of microorganisms located in the digestive tract. Microorganisms are a critical component of a healthy body. Many people rightly associate the gut with digestion, and a working digestive system allows the body to efficiently transform food into needed nutrients. However, many people don’t know that the gut is full of nerve endings and acts as a second brain that can communicate directly with the brain.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, “Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum.”
People who notice their emotions change when experiencing digestive issues may be seeing the second brain in action firsthand.
Three/3 Pillars of Gut Health and Anxiety
The Gut-Brain Axis
Have you ever felt sick right before going on stage to give a speech or performance? Have you ever experienced a strange “gut feeling” that told you something wasn’t right? These sensations represent the deeper relationship between your gut and brain, a connection referred to as the “Gut-Brain Axis” (GBA).
When it comes to gut health and mental health, the GBA is a key player. The brain contains 100 billion neurons, sending information to your body and orchestrating your body’s behaviors. Believe it or not, the gut contains 5 times the amount of neurons as the brain!
The brain and gut are connected through the vagus nerve, which sends signals straight from your gut to your brain and back. Studies on the vagus nerve reveal the effects of stress on the intestines.
The gut also contains an incredible number of neurotransmitters, just like the ones produced in your brain. You’re probably familiar with two types of these chemicals: cortisol and serotonin. The cortisol hormone produces stress levels in our bodies. This hormone is designed for our survival, but sometimes our bodies can secrete too much cortisol, often leading to anxiety. Serotonin, on the other hand, produces a calming effect, and it’s primarily produced in your gut. The gut also produces gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that directly impacts your body’s levels of anxiety.
Finally, the gut produces lipid chains that control brain function, and your immune system facilitates ridding the body of bacteria and chemicals. An overactive immune system leads to inflammation and has been linked to a variety of mental illnesses such as depression, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s. Research clearly conveys that gut health and anxiety are related through the Gut-Brain Axis.
Gut Health and Mental Health
At its core, stress is our friend. Primitive humans relied on this “fight or flight” response to evade predators and stay alive. In modern society, stress still plays a role in self-preservation, alerting us to situations that may be harmful.
Unfortunately for many, the brain fires its stress neurotransmitters even when we’re not in danger. This leads to feeling stressed in physically safe environments—at school, work, and home. Our bodies, however, are not meant to be in a constant state of stress.
Mental health is a complex issue that isn’t isolated to what’s happening in your head. A dysregulated, inflamed gut will affect you both physically and mentally. Your gut can become inflamed via food allergies, leaky gut, or other diseases. The gut uses energy to battle inflammation, which leaves little energy left over to produce serotonin and healthy neurotransmitters—chemicals that are essential for mental health.
Healing the Gut
Nutrient deficiencies may be another root cause of gut health issues and anxiety.
Missing nutrients include zinc, calcium, B12, and vitamin D—just to name a few. Dietary adjustments contribute to healing the gut and improving mental health. A diet consisting of balanced levels of healthy fats, proteins, complex carbs, and abundant fruits and vegetables provides a variety of healthy nutrients. Avoid processed foods as much as possible until your body is back in balance, or consider eliminating most processed foods altogether.
Our doctors recommend adopting a diet that incorporates gut-enhancing foods. Fermented foods rich in probiotics—such as yogurt, kefir, or sauerkraut—stand as some of the best for gut health. Omega-3 fats from fish; prebiotic fibers in whole grains, nuts, and fruits and vegetables; green tea, olive oil, and coffee with healthy polyphenol chemicals; and foods with tryptophan such as turkey, eggs, and cheese nourish the gut and the entire body.
Functional medicine doctors tackle a variety of health problems—nutrient deficiencies and general nutrition are right up our alley. Here at Five Journeys, we provide testing and supply supplements to help your body get the nutrients it’s lacking. We also offer general nutrition services and believe that diet is one of the best ways to find healing.
Gut Health, Mental Health, and Functional Medicine
Bodily symptoms such as a cold or fever provide clues about a deeper issue happening in the body. At its core, functional medicine is about finding and healing these root causes behind health issues—gut health and anxiety included.
Traditional anxiety medications are a core component of most mental health treatments. They help many individuals manage mental health struggles. However, we also believe in natural, non-invasive methods for treating anxiety and healing the gut microbiome.
Five Journeys functional medicine doctors are here to help diagnose and treat gut health and anxiety, from providing nutrition coaching to tips on how to find anxiety relief. Here at Five Journeys, we approach healing from the inside out.