Numerous studies suggest a bidirectional relationship between a person’s gut and mental health. Probiotics and diet may help a person to improve both.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. At the same time, digestive diseases account for
Research exploring whether anxiety and gut disorders are linked has focused on the “gut-brain axis,” a complex system of communication between the two organs, and the role of microorganisms in people’s gastrointestinal tract.
This article explores the link between gut health and anxiety, gut issues that cause anxiety, anxiety symptoms, and ways to manage anxiety and gut health.
The gut or gastrointestinal system (GI) is a series of organs, nerves, hormones, and bacteria that work together to
Within the lining of the GI lies another important control hub, the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS has 100 million nerve cells and can operate independently from the brain. Scientists believe it may play a role in the relationship between the gut and a person’s state of mental health.
According to a
Experts believe the ENS may also trigger big emotional shifts in people experiencing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other digestive disorders. Irritation in the GI may send signals to the CNS that trigger mood changes.
How does gut health affect anxiety?
Numerous studies have focused on the connection between gut microbiota and anxiety. The gut microbiota is a system of microorganisms in a person’s GI,
Gut microbiota plays an important role in regulating the immune system and processing energy from digested food. Changes in the microbiota can affect these functions, and scientists believe mental health can be affected too.
Learn more about inflammation here.
IBS, a GI condition involving inflammation and suspected gut microbiota alterations, has a co-occurrence of between 44 and 88% with anxiety and depression. More research is needed to assess whether this relationship is causal.
Gut microbiota also regulate the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, a chemical that scientists believe plays a role in mood stabilization.
Everyone experiences some form of anxiety. But if a person experiences excessive worry that prevents them from leading their day-to-day life, they may have an anxiety disorder.
According to the NAMI, anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions, each with unique symptoms. But people with anxiety disorders typically experience persistent fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.
Anxiety and depression are both
People with an anxiety disorder may also experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- restlessness or irritability
- racing heartbeat
- feelings of apprehension or dread
- shortness of breath
- anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
- feeling tense or jumpy
- tremors or twitching
- frequent urination
Several treatment options can help people manage anxiety symptoms.
Healthcare professionals may recommend a combination of methods, and treatment will vary depending on a person’s symptoms, preferences, and general health.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is a
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Numerous
studieshave shown CBT’s efficacy in treating anxiety disorders. CBT focuses on finding strategies to reduce beliefs and behaviors that contribute to anxiety.
- Exposure therapy: This behavioral therapy can help people overcome specific phobias. Psychiatric professionals guide people to expose themselves to situations or stimuli that trigger fear or panic; over time, these feelings reduce.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): This type of therapy uses goal-setting and mindfulness to reduce anxiety. ACT is a newer form of psychotherapy, but
researchhas associated ACT with improved mental health and quality of life.
Learn more about types of therapy here.
The most common types of medication for anxiety disorders include:
- Antidepressants: There are many types of antidepressants that work to reduce anxiety symptoms by correcting chemical imbalances in the brain. Common types include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
- Anti-anxiety medications: The most common type of anti-anxiety medication is benzodiazepines. These can help reduce anxiety symptoms but are usually only prescribed for short periods due to a risk of dependency.
- Beta-blockers: This medication is primarily used to treat high blood pressure but can also help relieve physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a rapid heartbeat and shaking.
Learn more about the different types of medication for anxiety.
There are various stress relaxation techniques a person can try to reduce anxiety, including:
The mechanisms through which physical activity reduces anxiety symptoms are unclear, but researchers believe it is likely to be a combination of biological and physiological factors.
Scientists believe taking steps to improve gut health may also help to manage anxiety.
Research has focused on the benefits of adding probiotics to a person’s diet and promoting healthy gut bacteria through high fiber and low saturated fat diets.
Learn more about the health benefits of probiotics here.
Various studies have explored the potential of probiotics to restore the balance of gut microbiota that has been disturbed by stress and anxiety and whether this improves anxiety symptoms.
Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics. Common types
- sourdough bread
Learn more about the best probiotic foods for a healthful diet.
Researchers have also examined how diet can impact a person’s gut microbiota and how this relates to stress and anxiety.
Researchers highlighted the following foods as supporting healthy microbiota:
This was in contrast to excessive consumption of animal protein, saturated fats, and refined or artificial sugars.
The study further suggests that adhering to high quality diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, reduces the risk of depression.
The Mediterranean diet has anti-inflammatory benefits (inflammation is a risk factor for anxiety and depression), is low in saturated fats and has a high dietary fiber content, further strengthening its role in supporting a healthy microbiota.
A person should speak with a healthcare or psychiatric professional if they experience symptoms of an anxiety disorder. They can advise a person about treatment options and direct them to the necessary support.
Similarly, people should seek medical advice if they experience persistent digestive issues. A healthcare team will be able to determine any underlying issues that may be causing them, including if they are related to an anxiety disorder.
It may also be worth speaking with a qualified nutritionist about how to improve one’s diet and how to increase the intake of probiotics.
Gut health and anxiety disorders are common health concerns in the United States. Researchers exploring the link between these conditions have focused on the “gut-brain axis,” a complex system of nerves, hormones, and bacteria that allows these two organs to communicate.
Research has shown stress can change the composition of gut microbiota, a system of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract that plays an important role in people’s health. A person’s gut microbiota is also involved in the development and function of their adaptive stress response.
Adding probiotics to a person’s diet may help regulate their gut microbiota, which may also help improve stress and anxiety symptoms. Following a healthy diet can further support a healthy gut microbiota composition and reduce the risk of depression.
People experiencing symptoms of anxiety or digestive issues should speak with a healthcare professional, who will be able to advise them on treatment options.