Is My Anxiety & Gut Health Connected?
5 Simple Steps to Implement at Home.
Anxiety and gut health are both areas I have experience in personally, and as it goes, they are common areas my clients seek support for in consultation as well.
I have noticed a rise in the conversations and posts around both gut health and anxiety on social media and in the general media.
We regularly see ads on probiotics or eating turmeric to reduce inflammation and we are finally having a conversation beyond the clinic about the connection with how we think and feel in our mind being related to how we feel in our stomachs, and the symptoms we are experiencing.
This is because we now have increasing evidence backed by scientific research that is proving how significant the link is between the digestive system and our nervous system, something Naturopaths and Nutritionists have been working on for a long time.
One of the things that makes this conversation even more important is that none of us are exempt from experiencing anxiety or digestive issues; and both are exceedingly prevalent across all age groups, genders and ethnicities.
If it isn’t you, I guarantee there is someone who you know that has been, or still is, struggling with one or both of these, and maybe they haven’t found their answer yet.
So which one came first, the digestive issues or the anxiety?
Even though they are not mutually exclusive, I find that there is a correlation between the two once I begin diving into the health and lifestyle questions in clinical consultation, and here is why - because the gut is actually part of our autonomic nervous system, it is called the enteric nervous system.
Our autonomic nervous system also includes our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for heart rate, blood pressure, energy and being alert. This is when we find we are ON too often and it can turn into the stress response we know as our fight or flight response.
And we also have our parasympathetic response, this is where our vagus nerve comes in, and it does the opposite of the ON switch that our sympathetic response induces, it is our rest and digest, our chill-mode.
Many of us are staying in the sympathetic response way longer than we want to, this means we are switched ON all of the time.
Some stress is great, it can make us feel more alert and excited about a project we are working on, or improve our focus as we work, however if it is ongoing, day after day, this type of stress in the body becomes increased inflammation, gastrointestinal disturbances and increased chances of anxiety symptoms.
The fact is that gut health and anxiety are so intertwined that there is usually a trigger situation, and if that is not addressed it can exacerbate and lead to the symptoms increasing in both areas.
Anxiety itself usually presents within these 5 different types:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) or Social Phobia
I will dive into these more in a future article, but for now it is good to have an understanding of how your anxiety may be expressing itself.
Again, these are not mutually exclusive and may overlap depending on the situation you are in, however there is usually something that triggered this event in the first place.
For me, I started having a combination of GAD and Panic Attacks right after I was married. I had no idea what they were at the time, but all I knew was all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe, my eyes went blurry and I felt this extreme urge to RUN. At the same time my husband was immediately working overseas and that exacerbated the issues because I was 'alone' in a foreign country and on reflection my symptoms then turned into SAD because I felt so conscious about how ‘weird’ I was being that I was avoided reaching out in social situations, let alone talk to anyone about how I was truly feeling..
I eventually went to the GP and he told me I was having anxiety. He gave me a prescription, however I never filled it. I started to explore more on why this was happening for me, and ways I could manage it myself because I didn’t want to become reliant on medication.
This is my story, but this may not be for everyone, some people need to go down the route or medications, however for me this turned into a holistic approach that was based on finding who I was, getting to know myself as a person and setting myself on my own path (not the comparison-itis and external approval path I was on). This was not an easy path, however it wasn’t until I studied to be a Naturopath that I was able to see the other connection in my symtpoms - my gut health was definitely questionable from years of antibiotics, bad food choices and a lot of partying, however it was never part of the conversation, nor was the inner work that has been such a huge part of my personal healing in this area.
What else can affect our gut microbiota?
Unfortunately, antibiotics DO affect our microbiome, and if you are anything like me 20 years ago, no one told me (or actually knew) that multiple rounds of amoxicillin for my sinus issues was affecting my gut health and therefore also increasing my levels of anxiety and overall nutritional deficiencies I was experiencing (my diet was pretty average too).
As well as food, alcohol and parasites that we can get when we are travelling, from food poisoning, and from a high stress lifestyle.
As well as food, alcohol and parasites that we can get when we are travelling, from food poisoning, an from a high stress lifestyle.
Functional testing helps us to identify what is happening in the bowel so we can determine the treatment protocol, which may show us:
SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth)
SIFO (Small Intestine Fungal Overgrowth)
Dysbiosis (of our microbes)
This is where I recommend you speak to a health practitioner. There are a number of functional tests that can be done to confirm the types of overgrowth or parasites, as well as other deficiencies or allergens that may be causing the symptoms you are experiencing.
How does my gut health lead to anxiety?
Our gut produces certain hormones and neurotransmitters (serotonin being a key one) that are sent to the brain directly or via the autonomic neurons. This communication channel is what is referred to as the gut-brain-axis.
Serotonin is one of our feel good neurotransmitters and 90% of it is produced in the gut.
We need sufficient protein to help produce serotonin, however, if we have inflammation, leaky gut syndrome or any type of dysbiosis alongside nutritional deficiencies, we will experience issues with how much is produced.
We also have millions of microbes living in our bowel, digesting and sending out signals of their own. When they are not working efficiently we experience what is called dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis means there is an imbalance of the microbes that live in your bowel. When we have dysbiosis it can present as symptoms found in the gut, and, in many cases, just to make it easier to work out (not!), these symptoms can express outside of the gut too!
Signs that are not gut-specific that you may experience include:
Allergies and lowered immune response, leading to autoimmune issues
Signs that are gut-specific that you may experience include:
Gas - burping and farting
Altered bowel movements
The main issue that we have in our modern world is inflammation.
Inflammation is the cause of much dis-ease in the body.
Inflammation is triggered by our immune system to protect us in response to foreign objects that are seen as harmful.
This can include viruses, trauma, toxins and bacteria, but what does that have to do with our gut?
Well, this response can be triggered because we have travelled and picked up a parasite (not fun), but for many of us it usually comes down to the type of food we are eating, the amount of stress we are experiencing, our lifestyle choices and in some cases, trauma or injury.
I find we don’t notice how inflammed we really are until we start to make some of the changes I have outlined below.
I recommend taking a photo of yourself and then one a month later. Doing something as simple as the first step only, which is including more fresh vegetables in the diet, will significantly reduce inflammation that can be seen on the outside, so it means it has started on the inside first.
5 simple changes to implement at home
These 5 simple changes are ones that you can make at home in your everyday actions that can, in many cases, lead to significant improvements. Believe me, I have seen it happen.
However, the fact is, we live in a world that is fast paced and built for convenience; where food and alcohol are entertainment and emotional support, caffeine is required to get us going, and our bodies are working hard to process highly refined foods that are made up of high fat, high carb and high sugar ingredients, all of which increase the inflammatory response in the body and leave us nutrient deficient, with sub-optimal energy.
This is the perfect storm. We wake tired from the (lack of) nutrients the day before, we reach for the coffee to help us start the day, we forget the water, we feel too tired to move our body and we are so busy and rushed that we wonder 'who has time for themselves'!
The 5 steps below are not changes that we do for a time-restricted period and then go back to 'normal', they are actions we should all be including in our day, everyday.
Start where you are and implement one at a time, or go all in and do every single one.
Write in your journal each day how you feel when you wake and how you feel when you go to bed.
Change can mean that the first 1-2 weeks feel extra challenging, extra exhausting, but that is also very rewarding when we push through and keep going.
Soon enough we will start to sleep better, feel better (mentally, emotionally and physically) and we will see improvement in our digestion, with reduced symptoms and more motivation to keep going.
1. Eat a variety of whole foods, particularly those filled with micronutrients
The reason for this is that our microbiome loves variety and it helps keep them diverse and healthy. Of course, if you are experiencing something
B vitamins include 8 in total. We need the full spectrum of B vitamins as they work synergistically, although of course some individuals may be particularly deficient in a particular B vitamin and require additional support to bring that up to optimal levels.
We want to be eating foods rich in B vitamins every day as they are a water-soluble vitamin, meaning we don’t specifically store them in the body as we do fat-soluble vitamins.
B vitamins play a major role in many biochemical pathways, including energy production, nerve cell synthesis, DNA repair, neurotransmitter production and also methylation, which is a key process that needs to be working correctly for producing mood-modulating neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline and adrenaline, and is also involved in heavy metal detoxification and DNA repair.
B vitamin rich foods include:
Dark leafy greens - spinach, lettuce, kale, broccoli
Nuts and seeds - almonds, sunflower seeds
Legumes - beans and lentils
Whole grains -
Fruit - avocado, banana, citrus
Organic, free-range and grass-fed meats (grain fed meats are highly inflammatory to the animal and therefore to us when we eat them)
Organic, free-range eggs
Wild fish - salmon, sardines, trout (avoid grain fed and farmed fish as they are found to be highly inflammatory)
EFAs - EPA/DHA - essential fatty acids are our Omega-3, 6 and 9. We especially need more Omega-3, because Omega-6 is found in so many processed foods and is more inflammatory in comparison. Omega-3 foods help our central nervous system to reduce inflammation, which can in itself improve mood.
Omega-3 rich foods:
Wild fish - salmon, sardines, trout (avoid grain fed and farmed fish as they are found to be highly inflammatory)
Zinc is a key precursor mineral, meaning it is required for many actions to take place in the body, particularly for our neurotransmitters and hormones (and yes, these play a big role in our gut and nervous system health), as well as our immunity. Zinc deficiency is common, and there is a fine balance between zinc and copper in the body, with high copper levels presenting as anxiety related signs, racing mind, inability to concentrate, for example.
Zinc rich foods:
Nuts and Seeds - avocado, cashews, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds
Free-range, grass-fed lamb and beef
Legumes - chickpeas and lentils
Dairy - kefir and ricotta
Magnesium is a key mineral that we are all deficient in. Magnesium has over 300 processes in the body and is depleted even further with chronic stress. If you are twitchy, sore and have trouble sleeping, you probably need magnesium.
Magnesium rich foods include:
Dark leafy greens - spinach, chard, kale
Dark chocolate or cacao powder (not Cadbury's or anything filled with sugar)
Nuts & seeds - almonds and pumpkin seeds
Legumes - black beans
Kefir and yoghurt (full fat and with probiotics)
2. Reduce inflammatory foods and drinks
This means reducing highly processed foods, which is so much easier when we are crowding them out with a highly nutritious whole foods diet that reduces our nutrient deficiencies and has us firing on
Inflammatory foods include:
Processed meats - bacon, salami, sausages, ham and smoked meats
Alcohol - heavy alcohol consumption can lead to leaky gut, increase feelings of anxiety and creates inflammation in the body
Soft drink, and yes that also means diet soft drinks, which trigger insulin (yes) and this in turn leads to inflammation in the body
Sugar, high fructose foods and refined carbohydrate foods - cakes, biscuits, pastries, donuts, cereals
Vegetable and seed oils - these are high in omega-6, and are used in all processed foods, which leads into increased inflammation when there is a high intake of processed food products.
3. Write it out
When you are experiencing anxiety, and / or gut issues, it helps to write it out.
Firstly, write out a food diary noting what you eat and how it makes you feel afterwards emotionally, mentally and physically. This may include things like, feeling highly anxious with heart palpitations or a ‘busy’ mind, it may be loose bowels multiple times or especially bloated, maybe extreme fatigue or feelings of being tired but wired.
If you are going to see a health practitioner, this information is really helpful to bring to them to help them understand what it happening, and because it is so much easier for you to record it as it is happening instead of trying to remember when you are being asked in a consultation.
It also helps to connect to what you are eating and how that is reacting in your body, many of us don't take the time to connect the dots.
Secondly, keeping a journal that you use to write in daily gratitude and future-self journaling (where you start writing how you want to feel and use that to change your internal state), creates an environment that is about crowding IN the thoughts, feelings and actions that you desire to create purpose, momentum and joy and in turn these simple (but challenging) actions help to crowd OUT the whirling thoughts and externalising patterns that make us feel anxious and stuck.
I cover this toolset with my clients because it is so powerful and this inner work, where we start to feel in to changing our internal state, is so needed in the world right now.
4. Drink enough water
This may seem like the simplest point here, but the power of having enough water is huge. We are made up of around 60% water - I want you to stop a minute and really think about that - over half of YOU is water. It is in our cells, our tissues and our organs.
Being hydrated helps regulate our temperature - ever felt anxious and gotten really hot at the same time, which has increased your anxiety? Water helps flush out toxins via our kidneys and aids better digestion, especially elimination - if you are constipated and you don’t drink enough water you may find immediate relief by increasing your water intake.
Water is taken into the body by drinking water and by eating fruits and vegetables, but if you are someone who avoids all of these, you are most likely dehydrated.
Soft drinks, diet soft drinks, caffeine, black tea, alcohol and caffeinated drinks don't provide the body with the water it requires, and the more of these you drink, the less water you will drink.
Drinking enough water (around 2L per day, more if you exercise and sweat a lot), will improve your cognition and focus, your skin health and tone, your bowel movements and even your sleep.
5. Move your body
We can shift our internal state when we move our body because it improves circulation, to our gut and to the brain, and this in turn increases BDNF - brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a protein that, when stimulated with something such as daily movement, will improve nerve cell growth, function and survival.
How we move our body isn't really important, but consistency is.
If you get bored, mix it up.
If you give up easily, find a partner to work out with to keep you accountable.
Movement for you may be to dance wildly to your favourite song in the lounge room or maybe you like to get outside for a walk in the sunshine, taking in the fresh air and (if possible) surrounded by nature.
It may be getting a friend to join up to your favourite exercise class or to try something new like pole dancing!
Whatever brings you joy, gets you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel energised and ALIVE is great.
Is it really this simple?
Yes, for most of us. But not for all. If you start incorporating these 5 simple moves into your daily life they will eventually just become how you do life.
The knock on effect will be a positive effect on both your gut health and mental wellness, particularly that boost in our mental wellness when we push through with something new. It crowds out the old and creates new neural pathways that have us feeling inspired to keep going.
Remember, these tips are general advice, meaning if you are struggling to manage your symptoms and find that your underlying cause is still presenting, I highly recommend seeing a health professional to have an individual case assessment completed.
Getting further support
In clinic (I consult with clients online and in-person) I complete a full health history in our Initial Consultation, which gives me more insight about you and your body, the symptoms you are experiencing and even the signs that you may not even be aware of.
The breadth of symptoms within our digestive system is wide, therefore a visit to your GP may be required for additional testing and referral to a Gastroenterologist, as well as the use of functional testing we can do in clinic. If you are working with a GP I believe in an integrated approach, bringing in natural medicine with nutrition and lifestyle changes alongside any allopathic care you are receiving, if you have gone down the pharmaceutical route.
If you are interested in working with me you can help book in for a FREE 15-minute Discovery Call here to talk through how Naturopathy, Nutrition and Holistic Health Coaching can help you.
I’d love to hear how you go implementing these changes. Please leave a comment below, and if you know someone who may benefit from reading this, please share it with them.
The more we share, the more people start to make changes as simple as these, the healthier, happier and whole we become together.