Your gut microbiome plays a complex role in maintaining or disrupting your mental health, and research shows that optimizing gut health may help relieve anxiety. Keep reading to learn how to reduce anxiety starting with your gut.
The link between gut health and anxiety
The gut microbiome (the collection of microorganisms that live in your gastrointestinal, or GI tract) is an impressive feature. “We have more microorganisms in our gut microbiome than in our entire body,” says Michael Chen, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician at Parsley Health in New York City. Variations in these microorganisms influence many of the normal processes in our bodies and may contribute to diseases like chronic inflammation and obesity, according to a 2012 review in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Interestingly, research also reveals that the gut microbiota and the brain talk to each other via neural, endocrine (e.g., hormones), and immune pathways, so that what happens in the brain impacts the gut, and vice versa, suggesting that your gut may play a key role in how to manage your anxiety.
The reciprocal relationship between the gut and the brain is known as the gut-brain axis, or the gut-brain connection. If you’ve ever gotten “butterflies in your stomach” before an anxiety-inducing presentation or felt nauseous when worried, you’ve experienced this connection firsthand.
Scientists are still unraveling the mechanisms behind this complicated connection and what it may mean for therapeutic treatments, but early research gives us some interesting clues. Studies in animals have found gut microbiota can influence the stress response and anxiety and depressive-like behaviors, and a new study in humans in the March 2020 issue of the Human Microbiome Journal found that a lower microbiome diversity was associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety.
How to reduce anxiety through your gut
“When you treat the gut better, you treat the brain better,” Dr. Chen says. Here are a few ways to bolster your gut health and increase your gut diversity to help reduce your anxiety naturally.
1. Start with the basics
In order to ease anxiety through your gut, you have to start with the foundations of health: getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, and moving your body. “It seems like a lot of obvious stuff, but you’d be shocked by how many people don’t do the obvious stuff,” Dr. Chen says.
For example, research shows that exercise may help diversify your gut microbiome, and ultimately improve gut health. One small study published in the April 2019 issue of Experimental Physiology reveals that greater cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with greater gut microbiota diversity among breast cancer survivors, while a small study in the October 2018 issue of Frontiers in Microbiology found that six weeks of endurance training was enough to cause a positive shift in the gut microbiome of overweight women—without any dietary changes.
Plus, physical activity can boost gut motility and prevent constipation: “Just that physical action of walking around is a gentle gut massage,” Dr. Chen says.
Similarly, getting good, quality sleep helps your gut stay healthy: Researchers recently found that gut microbiome diversity (a common indicator of a healthy gut) was positively correlated with sleep.
To keep your gut — and brain — healthy, try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
2. Build a self-care toolkit
Stress has been shown to disturb your gut microbiome in ways that increase anxiety. Reducing stress and anxiety actually go hand in hand—regularly practicing stress reduction techniques can help you optimize gut health, and ultimately reduce anxiety.
“The reality is, stressors aren’t going to go away,” says Kelly Johnston, RD, a health coach at Parsley Health in New York City. By regularly practicing stress reduction techniques, however, you’ll be better able to reduce the damage that stress can cause to your gut, as well as better manage anxiety when it arises.
A 2017 review published in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, for example, reveals that meditation helps regulate the body’s response to stress by maintaining a healthy gut barrier function, which ultimately helps your gut microbiome stay balanced.
Johnston encourages people dealing with anxiety to build a self-care toolkit made up of activities they find relaxing. A few options include talk therapy, meditation, belly breathing, drawing or painting, journaling, yoga, and exercise. To help you manage and cope with anxiety, Johnston recommends using at least one self-care tool per day.
3. Add probiotics
Many of the bacteria in your gut make chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that regulate feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress.
For example, the Bacillus bacteria species produces mood-regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, while the Escherichia bacteria species produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety and mood, according to a December 2014 review in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
When your gut microbiome gets thrown out of balance, production of these neurotransmitters can be affected, and anxiety can result. So to reduce your anxiety, try starting with balancing this microbiome.
Supplementing with the probiotic species Lactobacillis, for example, may help you produce more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that manages anxiety and depression, according to research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Additional research found that people who ate more foods with naturally occurring probiotics or prebiotics had significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety and were also less likely to suffer from a mental illness than people who ate fewer of these foods.
Add more probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kombucha to your diet, and/or consult with your doctor to find a probiotic supplement that works for you.
4. Eat gut-healthy foods
In addition to adding probiotics to your diet, you can create a healthy, balanced microbiome by focusing on getting more of the foods your gut loves (e.g., fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods), and less of what it doesn’t (e.g., sugar, alcohol, processed foods). “What you’re eating can really shift your microbiome,” Dr. Chen says.
To keep your gut healthy, cut back on foods that disrupt your gut microbiome, such as high-sugar sweets and breads, alcohol, dairy, gluten and processed meats. Replace those foods with fruits, vegetables, lean animal proteins, legumes, and nuts and seeds. “We want to focus on making the gut a healthy, thriving place so nothing gets in the way of neurotransmitters getting to where they need to go to help regulate your mood and anxiety,” Johnston says.