There has been a growing understanding and exploration by psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians and researchers about the role our gut bacteria plays on our mood—most notably the experience of anxiety.
The statistics on anxiety are staggering and trending north each passing year. Consider these stats: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (and NIMH) anxiety is the most common mental illness in America today.
An estimated 40 million adults (18 and older) or 18 percent of the population endorse symptoms of anxiety (not to mention one out of eight children). Treatment of anxiety accounts for one-third of the $148 billion dollars spent annually on mental illnesses in America.
In other words, we spend $42 billion a year on treatment of anxiety disorders in America. Women are 60 percent more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than our male counterparts. These numbers are terrifying to me as a clinician, a woman and a mother.
The symbiotic relationship between our gut health and how we feel is a hot topic of discussion and research. Scientists, physicians, and mental health practitioners are increasingly aware of the important relationship between the balance of “critters” in our gut and how we experience our brain, mood and emotions. So, before we begin to discuss what we can do to optimize this important relationship, let’s explore the underlying processes.
From a holistic vantage point our gut is known as the “second brain” and there are structural/anatomical reasons for this reference. The “second brain,” known scientifically as the enteric nervous system, consists of sheaths of neurons located in the walls of our gut. We refer to these sheaths as the vagus nerve and it runs from our esophagus to our anus, roughly nine meters long.
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When the precarious balance of bacteria in our gut becomes disturbed we often experience symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other gastrointestinal related disorders. These symptoms are likely to start out as complaints of bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.
These symptoms are often indicators of “leaky gut syndrome” where our gut wall becomes permeable and particles of food start to escape from the digestive and GI tract. When this occurs the domino effect of issues becomes inevitable and thus begins the cascading symptom patterns that plague tens of millions of Americans struggling with GI related disorders.
Due to the interconnectedness of our brain and enteric nervous system, via the vagus nerve, once our gut bacteria is out of whack, we are vulnerable to a pattern of emotional discomfort, usually marked by increasing episodes of anxiety and depression.
How does our gut bacteria become so unbalanced? Here are a few of the many ways in which we accidentally (and sometimes unavoidably) contribute to this pattern of disturbance:
Taking the right type of probiotic to help restore balance in the micro flora in your gut is one step, but often with more advanced GI issues and more acute anxiety based symptoms there is a need to first heal the permeability of the gut wall before adding in probiotics.
There is a growing body of research that is exploring strain specific probiotics to help mitigate acute symptoms of anxiety. For example, in clinical trials involving the study of mice, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus Rhamnosus have shown to help normalize anxiety-like behavior. Lactobacillus appears to work on the GABA receptors, an inhibitory neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of acute anxiety. GABA is the receptor influenced when you take a benzodiazepine such as Xanax or Ativan.
There is a bourgeoning area of interest and research exploring use of probiotics to treat a wide variety of mental illnesses. Pharmaceutical companies are attempting to create a new line of psychiatric medications referred to as Psychobiotics, but this field of research is still in its infancy.
So, that being said, there is a lot we can do right from the comfort of our own home to start the process of realigning the balance of our gut flora. As you can imagine, most of it involves cleaning up our diet, being mindful of the relationship between food and mood, and exploring our habits and patterns. Below are action steps you can take in an effort to begin the process of healing your gut, mind and brain:
It generally takes a minimum of 90 days for these suggestions to be maximally effective:
Exploring the relationship between our mood and our gut bacteria reveals an interconnected relationship between the mind, brain, and body, via the enteric nervous system and vagus nerve. This relationship is the foundation of why it is critical to address your emotional discomfort from a holistic and integrated approach to your wellness.
The good news is that because we now know and understand that there is a connection between the mind and body, we have the knowledge and tools to make immediate changes that will yield significant results in how we feel. The better we understand and participate in our own sense of wellness and empowerment the more likely we are to embark on change that starts from within.