People often describe anxiety as something felt in the gut, and science seems to support the idea that this sensation isn’t just a rhetorical coincidence. Paying attention to the “gut-brain axis” may indeed help alleviate anxiety symptoms in people with a broad range of mental health experiences. A new review of studies published in General Psychiatry suggests that gut health's role in anxiety could be as simple as keeping your microbiome consistent and regular — which can in turn reduce anxiety.
All of our guts host trillions of microorganisms, which isn’t nearly as gross as it might sound. These communities of gut microbiota help bolster our bodies’ anti-inflammatory responses, immune systems, metabolism, and nutrient uptake. These microorganisms are called probiotics because they fight the “bad” bacteria in our intestines.
But can that probiotic foods also help alleviate anxiety symptoms? To investigate the extent that these microbes might also help our brains, researchers at the Shanghai Mental Health Center at Shanghai Jiao Tony University School of Medicine reviewed 21 studies that looked at the impact of probiotics on anxiety symptoms. Over half of the studies (11 out of 21) found that regulating intestinal microbes helped reduce anxiety. The review found that taking probiotics directly can help calm some anxiety, but general dietary changes can be even more beneficial overall for anti-anxiety needs.
So where does this leave those of us with a boatload of anxiety and gut-load of intestinal bacteria ready to help our brains chillax? There are a few subtle shifts that might be able to help your bacteria-filled gut support your anxiety-filled brain today. Those trillions of bacteria in your gut love regular deposits of spinach, kale, collard greens — all the leaves, all the time. These leaves are packed with fiber and nutrients (vitamins C, K, and A, as well as folate) that help calm our guts and keep our internal microbiomes happy.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, eating leafy greens can encourage the enteric nervous system (aka your gastrointestinal tract) to send signals to your brain that all is well in the body. And your anxiety is likely to calm when your ENS tells your central nervous system (CNS), the part that directly impacts your mood, that all is well.
And have that salad regularly, too! You probably know about how circadian rhythms impact your sleep. But your digestive system also works on a clock: indeed, the Journal of Physiological Pharmacology tells us that our gut health is also time-dependent.
When you eat on a regular schedule (around the same time daily) and relatively often, your digestive system can function more smoothly. In other words, your gut health improves when you eat on a schedule: like with sleep, your gut likes well-timed nourishment.
There are also always probiotics you can get directly from your food. Dietary probiotics can be found in kimchi, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, and are often added to yogurt. But fermented, non-dairy options may be a safer bet for your gut: dairy-based yogurts can upset bowel movements and gut health in people who are lactose intolerant. So be careful with your choices, but rest assured that your gut-brain axis will most likely thank you.
And even if it doesn't: those of us whose brains are on constant hypervigilance-mode know that anxiety is anything but simple. It defies logic and, sometimes, it’s going to feel like it’s defying science. Do you have the healthiest gut of all the guts? Great! Are you still anxious as Peter Parker in Spider-man: Homecoming? That’s OK! Anxiety is painful, but it doesn't mean you (or your gut) are inferior if gut changes don't alleviate your feelings. Because diet isn't a cure-all for mental illness, and that's OK, too. You and your gut bacteria are valid, no matter where your anxiety is today.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.