Gut Health and Anxiety: How to Calm Your Mind and Stomach

Published July 5, 2022
woman sitting on sofa with anxiety and gut discomfort

Your gastrointesitnal tract, also known as the "gut," is a powerful tract of organs. Scientists have found that the way this powerful tract functions is related to another powerful and complex organ, the brain. Conditions that affect the brain may also affect the gut.

Anxiety, for example, can impact both the mind and the gut. Studies are suggesting that the relationship between the gut and the brain can play a role in how we treat anxiety symptoms. For instance, people with anxiety may potentially be able to reduce their symptoms from the inside out by addressing their gut health.

The Importance of Gut Health

Gut health is a term that is used to describe the way that your gastrointestinal (GI) tract functions. The GI tract, also just called the digestive tract, is made up of all of the parts of the body that aid in digestion. This includes a long list of parts from the mouth, the large and small intestines, and the gallbladder. The pancreas, liver, and, of course, the stomach, are also involved. Basically, it involves every element from when you start to chew food, to when you go to the bathroom.

Gut health also encompasses a person's microbiome - the microorganisms and bacteria that live in the stomach and help break down and process food. For example, if a person was experiencing severe digestive issues or developed a stomach bug, their gut health is negatively impacted.

Research shows that gut health can have a strong impact on a person's overall well-being. Approximately 60 to 70 million people in the U.S. alone have some form of digestive disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn's disease. That's a lot of people whose gut health may be negatively impacted.

When you have good gut health, the intestinal barrier is maintained. The intestinal barrier is responsible for the uptake of nutrients. In addition, it helps improve immune function which is important to prevent disease and keep you feeling healthy. But if your gut health is poor, your well-being may suffer.

woman on sofa with stomach pain

Poor gut health is associated with conditions including:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Digestive problems
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Stomach pain

How Are Gut Health and Anxiety Related?

Do you experience anxiety and often have digestive issues? You're not alone. People with anxiety often experience overwhelming thoughts of worry that can make them feel on edge. In addition, fight or flight responses are activated more often in people who are experiencing anxiety, which increases their stress levels.

Higher rates of stress can lead to higher rates of inflammation in the body. And research suggests that anxiety can increase inflammation not only in joints, but also in the gut. This has lead scientists to identify the gut-brain axis.

The Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain axis is a term that refers to communication between the gut's microbiome and the brain's central nervous system. Both the gut and the brain can send a variety of signals to one another. The gut can send signals to the brain and the brain receives those signals, and then send signals of its own right back. These messages can involve the release of hormones, neurotransmitters, and even immune signals. Researchers have found that this communication creates the possibility to reduce anxiety symptoms by changing the bacteria in the gut.

For instance, have you ever become anxious or were in a high-stress situation and felt like you needed to use the restroom? People sometimes refer to this experience as 'anxiety poop.' It's totally normal and just one way that the brain and stomach interact with one another. When you start experiencing stress, the gut can become inflamed. Then, the brain or gut send a signal or two to each other, and you may end up feeling like you need to use the bathroom.

But the brain-gut connection can cause much more than just an upset stomach. Some people feel like they need to use the bathroom constantly when they are anxious. Although this is a common response, it can make life more difficult. That is why science has started to look into gut health solutions.

How to Maintain a Healthy Gut

woman drinking green smoothie for gut health

There is a laundry list of things that can impact a person's gut health. For example, it can be influenced by how a person's body is built, genetics, and even stress. There's no quick fix or blanket solution to improving your gut health, however, research has suggested a few factors that can have a positive impact.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Modern diets are often high in fats and added sugars, which cause inflammation and can cause negative changes to bacteria in the gut. For optimal health, you want a gut that has rich, healthy, diverse bacteria.

This has led researchers to encourage people to reduce their intake of foods that are high-fat, high-salt, and artificially sweetened. Also, studies have shown that diets that are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber can actually promote good gut health. For example, including more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts into your diet can give your gut a good variety of nutrients.

Some foods you may want to incorporate into your meals are:

  • Fiber: Whole-wheat pasta, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, and pears
  • Minerals: Fish, legumes, nuts, leafy greens, and milk
  • Vitamins: Watermelon, mushrooms, potatoes, bananas, and broccoli

Engage in Exercise

Studies have found that exercise can actually improve the composition and diversity of a person's microbiome. That's right, a walk around the block can help boost the bacteria in your gut. Not only that, but exercise has also been found to help reduce inflammation in the gut, as well as have a positive impact on anxiety, memory, and learning. But you don't have to run to the gym in order to exercise. Follow a yoga flow online, or practice simple stretches. Do what feels good for you.

Get Some Rest

There have been several studies that suggest the importance of sleep for both physical and mental health. So it should come as no surprise that sleep is an important part of gut health, as well. Research has shown that lack of sleep can actually change the gut's microbiome and have a negative impact. Although research is still unclear about exactly why/how the change occurs, it's clear that there is a link between the two.

Reduce Stress

Your stress level and how you manage stress impacts gut health. If you can find a way to reduce stress, you may experience better digestive health, as well. But how do you reduce stress? For starters, you can begin a mindfulness or meditation practice. However, those aren't the only things that have been shown to reduce stress. In fact, several creative outlets offer similar benefits.

Some creative endeavors that have been shown to reduce stress include:

Create a Routine

Research suggests that routines can have a positive impact on a person's health and may help to reduce stress by making life more manageable. When you know what you have planned for the day, you can break it down into small, simple tasks. Each task becomes less overwhelming and allows you to budget time where you most need it. Create a morning or nighttime routine, and maybe even get a planner to help you keep track of your weekly schedule.

Consider Probiotics

Current research has been investigating the use of probiotics for better gut health. Probiotics are microorganisms, like bacteria, that have health benefits for people when they are consumed. Probiotics can be found naturally in many foods, such as yogurt or pickles.

Research has found that probiotics can reduce inflammatory proteins in the body. This reduction has been found to play a role in both anxiety and depression. In addition, they can also strengthen the intestinal barrier. In fact, one study found that mothers that consumed higher rates of probiotics showed improved gut health not only in themselves but also in the children that they were carrying.

Scientists believe that the use of probiotics in the reduction of anxiety and other mental health symptoms holds a lot of promise and possibilities. Further research is needed to establish which kinds of probiotics can have positive influences, as well as how often they should be consumed.

Talk to Your Healthcare Professional

If you experience stomach or digestive pain, or even just want to know more about how to improve your gut health, then talk to your healthcare professional. They will be able to work with you to create a plan that suits your needs. Make sure to tell them whatever symptoms you experience, as well as the foods you incorporate into your diet. Together, the two of you will be able to improve your gut health one step at a time.

Gut health and anxiety are linked through factors such as stress and inflammation, especially when experienced over a long period of time. However, this unique connection has an upside. Anxiety symptoms can be reduced by maintaining a healthy gut. This gives people the opportunity to potentially eat, rest, and exercise themselves into a life with fewer anxiety symptoms. So, listen to your gut. It might just be trying to tell you something.

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Gut Health and Anxiety: How to Calm Your Mind and Stomach