If you think your anxiety is giving you intestinal issues, you’re probably right. Here’s what we know about the gut-brain connection, and how one issue can exacerbate the other.
Most of us have experienced “butterflies” in our stomachs at least once in our lives. Before a presentation, flying in an airplane, riding a roller coaster for the first time, or going on a first date – no matter the cause, any experience that makes us anxious can produce that familiar fluttery feeling.
Not to mention, we’ve also been through “gut-wrenching” experiences or felt nauseated from nervousness. So what exactly is going on when we feel these emotions in our stomachs?
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Keep reading to see how anxious emotions and your gut are connected, and what to do about it.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Your brain – and therefore your thoughts and emotions – are directly linked to your gut. This link is officially called the gut-brain axis, and involves a complex network of nerves and neurotransmitters that relay information back and forth like a walkie-talkie system.
For instance, when you’re feeling a certain emotion, this feeling is relayed to your gut, and your stomach responds. It’s here you may experience those familiar “butterflies.” On the flip side, if you’re experiencing digestive difficulties, such as IBS or constipation, this information is sent to your brain and can cause you to feel irritable or even depressed. (1)
If you’re wondering how this can possibly be true, consider this: your gut alone contains between 200 and 600 million neurons. That’s equal to the amount found in your spinal cord! (2)
Research has also shown that anything that disturbs this link, such as stress or certain foods, can cause or lead to several ailments like depression, eating disorders, obesity, and other gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (3)
How Your Mood Affects Your Gut
Doctors and researchers have labeled the emotional, psychological, and physical link between the brain and the gut the “enteric nervous system,” or ENS. This system tends to act as a second brain, or even another branch of the nervous system in and of itself. It contains signaling molecules and a large nerve called the vagus nerve that runs down its center, much like the spinal cord in our “main” nervous system. (4)
The vagus nerve sends and receives signals directly from brain regions involved in regulating anxiety, including the locus coeruleus, orbitofrontal cortex, insula, hippocampus and amygdala. Because of this, researchers believe that having a vagus nerve that isn’t functioning properly due to chronic stress can lead to symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Interestingly, one study found that stimulating the vagus nerve eased anxiety symptoms in participants with OCD and PTSD, and these effects lasted long-term after treatment. (5)
The vagus nerve is also a large part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and is able to communicate with your gut through its microbiota, or bacteria. This means signals are going back and forth between your gut and brain constantly. (6)
Naturally, anything that gets in the way of this communication could spell trouble for your gut health. Studies show that excess stress and anxiety do just that by hindering the vagus nerve’s ability to communicate with your gut microbes. (7)
How Stress Triggers Gut Inflammation
Anxiety and stress tend to cause what researchers describe as “weakening vagal tone,” which means that the vagus nerve is unable to send and receive signals properly. Unfortunately, this has been shown to cause inflammation that contributes to inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
This happens because the vagus nerve’s fibers, when working optimally, are able to keep down peripheral inflammation and decrease intestinal permeability – two factors that contribute to a huge amount of gut problems. (8)
Another danger with this is that not only does stress and anxiety cause inflammation, but this works as a two-way street: inflammation and gut permeability have also been shown to cause mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. (9)
Stress Harms Good Gut Bacteria
Anxiety also has a detrimental effect on the good bacteria taking roost in your gut. These good guys are responsible for keeping bad bacteria and pathogens under control, and when they’re put under stress, they tend to mutate and become unbalanced, leaving your gut open to bad bacterial growth.
Once this happens, inflammation can occur and cause increased gut permeability, allowing bacteria and foreign particles to leak into your bloodstream through your gut wall. Studies have shown this can lead to immune diseases such as IBD, asthma, and diabetes, as well as other mood disorders like depression and even autism. (10)
7 Foods to Avoid for Gut-Brain Health
One of the best ways to keep your gut healthy and to avoid creating more anxiety by stressing your gut bacteria is to avoid certain inflammatory foods. Check them out below:
2. Fruit Juices
While caffeine has been shown to be slightly beneficial for people suffering with depression and other mood disorders, the opposite has been true when it comes to anxiety. The stimulating effect of coffee and other caffeinated drinks can actually make anxiety symptoms worse. (14)
5. Diet Soda
Most diet sodas contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener that has been linked to not only anxiety, but also learning problems, headache, seizure, migraines, irritable moods, depression, and insomnia. (15)
Dairy products, including cheese, milk, and yogurt, contain a protein called casein, which has been linked in studies to an increase in odds of developing schizophrenia and other neurobehavioral disorders and neuropsychiatric diseases. (16)
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 20 percent of people dealing with social anxiety disorder suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence. Studies have also shown that heavy drinking rewires the brain, making it more susceptible to anxiety problems. (17)
5 Foods to Eat for Gut-Brain Health
Now that you’re aware of what types of foods to avoid that could trigger gut problems or anxiety, let’s take a look at foods that can actually improve them.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, non-dairy yogurts, and coconut water kefir all contain probiotics – beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. Studies show consuming foods high in probiotics can help reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms due to their ability to help keep bad bacteria (which can cause all kinds of digestive issues) in check. (18)
Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been shown to help regulate the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which play a huge role in mindset, emotional well-being, and anxiety levels. In addition, fish like salmon are rich in vitamin D, which has a positive effect on neurotransmitters that promote feelings of calmness. (19)
Capping your night with a cup of chamomile tea is a great habit to form if you’re looking for quick anxiety relief. One study showed that participants diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) experienced a significant reduction in symptoms after consuming chamomile extract, compared to those who didn’t. (20)
Turmeric and its main compound curcumin have been studied extensively for its positive effect on brain health. Interestingly, studies show that it can help boost levels of DHA (the omega-3 fatty acid we spoke of earlier), which promote calmness and the release of beneficial neurotransmitters. (21)
It’s no surprise that chocolate makes (almost) everyone feel better and more relaxed. This decadent treat helps lower the stress hormone cortisol, which could trigger anxiety when left unbalanced. (22)
As you can see, the brain and the gut are connected by a two-way street: what you eat affects your mood, and your emotions in turn affect your gut health. By choosing the right foods and avoiding anxiety-triggering processed foods, you can help break the cycle of anxiety and gut problems.
(Read This Next: 7 DIY Gut Tests You Can Do At Home)