Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. The two types of anxiety are normal anxiety which is intermittent and expected, dependent on certain events or situations, and problem anxiety which tends to be chronic and can interfere with normal life. Previous studies have shown that as many as one-third of our population may be affected by anxiety symptoms during their lifetime.
Currently, more than 350 million people worldwide are affected by anxiety. In the US alone it is the most common mental illness affecting 40 million adults. These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, can be out of proportion to the actual danger, and can last a long time. (1)
CAUSES OF ANXIETY
The causes of anxiety can be due to different triggers but the mechanism as to how this affects various individuals is not well understood. Numerous causes include stress, genetics, brain chemistry, traumatic events, depression, or environmental factors. For some people, anxiety may be linked to an underlying health issue or it can be a side effect of certain medications. (2)
Stress is a huge trigger for anxiety. Symptoms are common in people with mental diseases and a variety of physical disorders. Generally, the stress response is important for enhancing adaptability and coping with threatening situations. However, excessive stress during a serious illness or a death in the family for example may cause continued anxiety leading to unhappiness in life, job burnout, unhealthy lifestyles, and chronic disorders. (3)
Stress is commonly known to cause intestinal imbalances, often resulting in problems with digestion. It can induce muscle spasms and gas in the bowel which can be painful and interfere with the absorption of nutrients into the body. Stress not only increases the risk of disorders in the cardiovascular and digestive systems but may also cause neuropsychiatric problems resulting in anxiety. (3)
We read stories every day about how stress is believed to be one of the main causes of poor health. Lowering stress levels can significantly enhance our health and help keep our digestion in balance.
The relationship between anxiety and our gut health is explained by the gut-brain axis. This axis is the complex interaction between the microbiome and the brain. This connection is accomplished through chemical compounds called neurotransmitters which are part of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves connecting our gut and brain. It has been identified as the major communication pathway between the gut and the brain, sending signals in both directions. (4)
The importance of the gut-brain axis in regulating stress-related responses has long been appreciated. More recently, the microbiota has emerged as a key player in the control of this axis, especially during conditions of stress and anxiety. (4)
The gut microbiome refers to the trillions of beneficial bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi, and other microorganisms that normally inhabit our gastrointestinal tract. These microbes are crucial to the functioning of our digestive system and overall health. Our bodies depend on these microbes to help us break down food, absorb and transport vitamins and minerals, strengthen our immune function, and lower our chances of food or chemical allergies. Dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) and inflammation of the gut have been linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are highly prevalent in society today.
An interesting review of 21 different studies examined the relationship of our microbiome to anxiety. Researchers from the Shanghai Mental Health Center in China set out to investigate if there was evidence to support the improvement of anxiety symptoms by regulating intestinal microbiota. (5)
They found that more than half of the studies showed positive results when treating anxiety symptoms through the regulation of intestinal microbiota. They also suggest that, in addition to the use of psychiatric drug therapy, “we can also consider regulating intestinal flora to alleviate anxiety symptoms.” (5)
Increasing research suggests that probiotics can help restore normal microbial balance, and therefore may have a potential role in the management and prevention of anxiety, mood, and depression. (6)
Probiotics are living microorganisms found naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, and kefir. These friendly bacteria compete for space and food against harmful bacteria thus preventing them from settling in the gut. The bacteria most frequently utilized as probiotics are in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families. (7)
Most fermented foods are made from whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy. While these foods are nutritious in their original form, through fermentation they have the potential to carry additional health benefits.
LIVING WITH ANXIETY
Classically, anxiety has been treated with various approaches. Because extensive anxiety is considered a mental illness, anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals have been prescribed to help cope.
Psychobiotics is a term coined by neuropharmacologist John Cryan from the University College Cork in Ireland. It is now applied to research using live bacteria that, when ingested, might offer a mental health benefit by affecting the microbes of the host. (8)
For those with consistent anxiety, these and other studies indicate that having a healthy and balanced gut microbiome could be a simple way to manage one’s daily anxiety. If you eat lots of processed meat, fried food, refined cereals, candy, pastries, and high-fat dairy products, you are more likely to be anxious and depressed so include the following foods for better health.
- Leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard for their magnesium
- Legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains for their magnesium
- Avocado and almonds for their B vitamins
- Oysters, cashews, liver, beef, and egg yolks for their zinc
- Fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon for their omega-3 fatty acids (9)
And remember probiotics either from fresh food, fermented food, or in supplements. All of these foods have been shown to help maintain a healthy gut while alleviating or at least lowering anxiety.
- Adaa.org. 2021. Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
- Ning Zhan, MD, et al; Probiotic supplements for relieving stress in healthy participants. Medicine (Baltimore) 2019 May; 98(20): e154 DOI: 10.1097/MD.0000000000015416
- Jane A. Foster, et al, Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 7, December 2017, Pages 124-136. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289516300509
- Deans, E., 2020. Microbiome And Mental Health In The Modern Environment. https://jphysiolanthropol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40101-016-0101-y#Abs1
- Beibei Yang, et al. Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: A systematic review. General Psychiatry, 2019; 32: e100056 DOI: 10. 1136/gpsych-2019-100056 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190520190110.htm
- Luis Vitetta, The gastrointestinal tract microbiome, probiotics, and mood; Inflammopharmacology. 2014 Dec;22(6):333-9. DOI:10.1007/s10787-014-0216-x https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25266952/
- Clapp, M., et al, 2021. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: the gut-brain axis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/
- Cryan, J., Dinan, T. Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behavior. Nat Rev Neurosci 13, 701–712 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3346
- Uma Naidoo, M., 2021. Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety – Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441