Anxiety is a common concern today. Many people suffer from it. Some have it from an early age and others notice theirs started later in life. Regardless of when it started, it’s not fun living with it.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways. It’s not always a panic attack. It can show in the form of control, OCD type tendencies, and irritability. Each person will have different triggers. Mine is control. I also have some OCD, but my main trigger is control. If I can’t control the outcome of a situation or I can’t control as much as I can, I will have a panic attack. For someone else, their triggers and reactions are completely different.
I didn’t always have anxiety though. Some develop anxiety due to specific situations. Others have a genetic predisposition and develop anxiety at a very early age. And then there’s a large class of people with anxiety that developed it due to gut issues.
Yup…anxiety can start in the gut. Here’s what we are going to hit on in this blog:
Anxiety and the gut
Tips to get back on track
Let’s get to it!
The gut and brain talk to each other through several pathways. The most well-known is the vagus nerve. But the immune system and the HPA axis also help the gut communicate with the brain. Your gut bacteria play a vital role in the gut’s communication with the brain.
Your gut bacteria starts to grow while you’re in your momma’s belly (3). The health of the mom and the intestinal flora have a direct impact on the gut health of the baby. Once born, the bacteria continue to grow through immediate environmental exposure.
Through infancy, your microbiome continues to grow. Outside influences such as diet, dirt, and antibiotic use will also influence the gut. The gut flora is mature well before the brain is but has a direct impact on brain development (3).
Even GI disorders can play a role in the gut-brain axis function, or lack thereof. Common bowel issues like IBS or the various types of IBD can have an impact on the axis. In a study of IBS sufferers, they had an abnormal CNS reaction, over-activation of the immune system, and poor function of the HPA axis (2).
Anxiety & the Gut
Altered HPA axis, immune health, and gut function play a direct role in levels of anxiety and/or depression.
Immune activation in the gut impairs motor function, alters hunger and satiety patterns, and alters the blood-brain barrier (3). Continued immune activation leads to “leaky gut.” When the immune system is activated, the body releases pro-inflammatory cytokines.
With increased gut permeability, inflammatory cytokines get outside the digestive tract and into the body. They can alter the function of the blood-brain barrier allowing for “bad molecules” to pass through (1). This will increase symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. On the flip side, decreased immune activation and improved intestinal barrier function affect this.
Pro-inflammatory cytokines will also kick off the stress response in the body (1). I’ve talked about stress many times. Simply eating something our body doesn’t agree with can cause the HPA axis to enact the stress response. Overstimulation of the HPA axis leads to dysregulation of the HPA axis. This has a direct effect on anxiety (1).
Good bacteria in the gut play a role in the formation of GABA, serotonin, catecholamines (stress response hormones, and histamine (think allergic reactions). If we have an imbalance of good to bad bacteria or increased gut permeability, our production of these happy, healthy hormones tanks. These happy hormones communicate with the Central Nervous System (CNS). If the hormones ain’t happy, the brain ain’t happy. They regulate sleep, mood, and cognitive function.
How to Help Yourself
The best place to start is an anti-inflammatory diet or an elimination style diet. This includes common inflammatory foods like sugar and dairy. Even better, get some food sensitivity testing done. If you know what foods your body doesn’t agree with, you can cut them out. Removing offending foods coupled with a gut healing supplement protocol can repair gut permeability.
Add in prebiotics and fermented foods to your life. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria in your gut. Fermented foods help increase the growth of good bacteria. We now know these critters help produce our vital happy hormones, so load up!
That’s just the start. Likely, there is HPA axis impairment at play as well. This, I find, is harder to get a handle on. You know why? Because it requires you to slow down. And that’s tough!
I will ask clients to ditch HIIT for yoga or walking and really work on improving their sleep quality. I hear you! You love your HIIT and you feel like you thrive of 6 hours of sleep. Your body doesn’t like either when you have HPA axis dysregulation. It’s a small change for a short period of time so your body can repair itself for long-term health.
A few easy things you can start on:
Limit HIIT to 2-3x weekly…fill in the gaps with gentle exercise
Get 8-9 hours of sleep a night
De-stress, de-stress, and de-stress some more
Repairing the HPA axis takes much longer than repairing the gut. But it CAN be repaired. It takes time and patience.
That’s it! Now you know why when you’re feeling anxious, you may have to run to the loo!
Sound off! Let’s hear it! In the comments below, tell me one this you learned from this blog you can implement to better your gut-brain connection.
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Clapp, M., Aurora, N., Herrera, L., Bhatia, M., Wilen, E., & Wakefield, S. (2017). Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clinics and Practice, 7(4), 987. http://doi.org/10.4081/cp.2017.987
De Palma, G., Collins, S. M., & Bercik, P. (2014). The microbiota-gut-brain axis in functional gastrointestinal disorders. Gut Microbes, 5(3), 419–429. http://doi.org/10.4161/gmic.29417
Tillisch, K. (2014). The effects of gut microbiota on CNS function in humans. Gut Microbes, 5(3), 404–410. http://doi.org/10.4161/gmic.29232