We have all experienced stress or anxiety at some stage in our life and there are so many words we use to describe this: 'stress and anxiety' 'anxiety and depression' or even 'chronic stress'. The question I have for you is this - have we suddenly become a species that is afflicted with chronic anxiety? Or has something shifted in our lifestyle and diet to create the perfect storm for mental health issues such as anxiety?
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. It is said to affect one in three women and one in five men. It’s probably higher as these numbers are only reported cases of anxiety. The National Health Survey of 2014-2015 in Australia showed 11.2% of the population had anxiety. Everywhere you go, every day, you come across people you love, or people in your community, with anxiety. Or it could be you?
As a society, we should ask 'Does this statistic on anxiety from the Australian Bureau of Statistics correlate with its findings on exercise, or diet?' Only half of us have enough physical activity (considered by the ABS to be an average of 21 minutes a day). Even direr, only 7% of Australians meet the recommended intake of vegetables (5-6 serves).
Only seven percent!
We need these gorgeous, health-giving foods in our diet every single day. They play such an important role in our gut and our gut plays a critical role in our mood. With all we know about the effects of diet and movement and other lifestyle factors on the microbiome, is it any surprise that our bodies are ringing the alarm bells? For one in three of us, that alarm bell is anxiety.
So you get the picture, the big picture. There’s also a teeny tiny microbial picture …and this isn’t a simple story at all. It’s an incredibly complex interaction between us, our microbes and our environment. We are only just scratching the surface, but from the small amount we have learned so far, powerful links are emerging.
During this article, I’m going to try and break it down to give you the insight you need to move forward with taking control of your own mental wellness.
What does anxiety look like?
Anxiety is defined as having difficulty controlling worry, including other aspects of daily life, on a regular basis. Symptoms associated with anxiety include:
- Muscle tension / tightness
- Disturbed sleep
The worry, anxiety or associated symptoms usually cause significant distress and can impair your social, personal and work life. You can imagine what a huge impact anxiety has on our society as a whole.
However, what I’d like to tell you is that although this is common, it is not normal. Our amazing human bodies are designed to keep us moving, energised and full of vitality from day to day – body and mind.
What’s causing this abnormal elevation in mood disorders so common throughout Western society?
The Role of the Microbiome
So how does the microbiome tie in with anxiety? Let’s do a little anatomy 101.
Our central nervous system has several branches, an autonomic nervous system and an enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is embedded within the gut and has a bidirectional role to play – that means it communicates from gut to brain and brain to gut. You will have noticed it in action with a ‘nervous poo’, ‘butterflies in your tummy’ or a loss of appetite during times of anxiety.
We know now that the microbes in our gut can communicate directly with our brain through the vagus nerve. They talk to our brains about how hungry we are and how happy we are. But it’s not just the microbes talking to our brain. The by-products from these microbes have an effect on our brain. They produce waste products that affect our mood (eww). Good bacteria create the right environment for robust mental wellness and bad bacteria can send everything south! The bugs in our gut also have a role in regulating the production of chemicals (neurotransmitters) that affect our mood such as serotonin. In fact, 95% of our serotonin (our happy hormone) is produced in our gut.
Are you getting the picture of what a profound role our gut health plays in our mental health?
As I mentioned before though, it’s a 2-way street. Your thoughts, or emotional distress, can disrupt the balance of microbes in your gut as well. You can’t just look after your gut, or just look after your mind. We need to do both!
Another mechanism at play here – and it’s quite a big one – is the link between inflammation, gut health and mental wellness. There is such strong evidence now showing that the links between gut health, inflammation and mental health (including anxiety) are very strong.
What do we know?
We know those gut microbiome disturbances are widespread in people with psychiatric disorders, and it’s not just bacteria that tip the scales. Parasites have a long and impressive history of affecting host (that’s us) behaviour for its own benefit. It is well studied in animals, and the most common affect on the host are changes in the central nervous system and the immune system. Remember, these are two key systems tied in with conditions such as anxiety. "What has this got to do with me?" I hear you ask. Well, this is true for humans, too. Parasitic infection in our gut affects our immune and nervous system, leading to inflammation and changes in mood. Parasites can impair the function of our happy hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. One study in America found that people exposed to the well-known parasite Toxoplasma gondii had higher rates of generalised anxiety. Now generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) has a huge impact on our society and it sure is more complex than just a parasite, but it’s a factor that needs addressing.
If you are struggling with anxiety, both pathogenic bacteria and parasitic infection are possibilities that need investigating. There’s no need to stab around in the dark with this one. And there’s no need to suffer anxiety when we can address possible causes. A faecal microbial analysis (FMA) can reveal an overgrowth of pathogens, bacteria, yeasts, and parasites that are affecting your mood. At Kultured Wellness, we offer Microba stool tests to our clients and you can discuss the results with our naturopath. As we say, 'test, don't guess!'
What can we do?
It has been shown, again and again, that consuming probiotics significantly improves anxiety. Large-scale research studies show quite clearly that this is the case. They can decrease ruminating thought patterns, and improve sad and anxious mood. Have you found yourself having trouble with negative, repetitive thought patterns? That’s rumination. They can even shift your focus from noticing negative things to noticing more positive events. How cool is that? The specific bacteria and yeasts in our Kultured Wellness Culture Starters are also tailored based on the research to have many beneficial effects and this includes the production of healthy functioning neurotransmitters and substances that have a positive effect on our mood.
How do probiotic foods affect my mood?
They do so many amazing things such as:
- crowd out pathogens
- decrease inflammation in the gut
- enhance gut-brain communication in a positive way
- improve the immune system function
All those ways in which the gut and brain talk are positively affected by the regular consumption of probiotics.
Anxiety is such a common, yet incredibly complex issue and it would be remiss of me to limit causes of anxiety only to the gut and its inhabitants. However, other techniques have proven to alleviate anxiety also support our gut health. There’s a beautiful balancing, realigning benefit when we engage in all of the behaviours that support our microbiome and our mental health at the same time.
These pillars are the ones we build on to create mental and physical wellness, those that support us overall, also support mental health and also support a robust gut microbiome.
- Access nature
- Move your body
- Eat nourishing foods
- Make fermented foods EVERY day foods
- Eliminate foods that create inflammation such as wheat and dairy
- Seek out supportive relationships – reach out
- Get a team around you. Who are your crew?
- Find times for stillness
- Drink clean dechlorinated water
In a nutshell
- Anxiety is a common problem for many of us. You are not alone.
- The gut affects anxiety directly through the enteric nervous system (and vagus nerve), bacterial by-products, inflammation and hormone production.
- Anxiety can be significantly improved with attention to gut health. The links between mental health and gut health are so strong.
- Attention to gut infections such as bacterial overgrowth and parasites is important for addressing underlying causes of anxiety in some.
- Kultured Wellness Coconut Water Kefir and Coconut Yoghurt contain microbial strains that are clinically evidenced to have a positive effect on many mood disorders including anxiety.
- If in doubt, seek a stool analysis to get some clear direction and treatment.
- Anxiety is treatable and we can live anxiety free when we tap into all the abundant resources nature has to offer.
To work with us on your gut microbiome, simply click here to book a practitioner consult and Microba stool test kit.