Does your gut play a role in anxiety too?? I talk about the gut A LOT! In fact, the main focuses in my practice are on gut health and toxins because these are the two main drivers for the complex and chronic disease and symptoms we are seeing today. Recent research done in Sweden suggests that the microbiome composition is playing a HUGE role in our anxiety levels.
How are the gut and brain connected?
Typically when you think about mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. you are not automatically thinking about the gut as being a driver for these conditions. Maybe we should shift our thinking? If you question whether or not the gut and brain are connected I would ask you to think about the last time you ate a big meal filled with carbs and sugars, I’m thinking a meal from somewhere like Olive Garden – lots of bread and pasta with that Andes mint to follow. How did you feel after you ate that meal? Were you tired? Did you feel “spacey” or have a little brain fog? Insert the gut – brain connection! When we eat a meal that causes inflammation in our guts we actually feel it in our brains. (This is all fixable by the way ;))
How does the gut-brain connection work?
The bugs in our gut do A LOT of things! The human microbiome is comprised of over 35000 bacterial species making for over 10 million bacterial genes! Way more than the genes in the human body.
A Danish study looked at different microbiomes from different individuals and put them into two categories: those with high gene count and those with low gene count. The two groups had very different bacterial species present. The high gene count group had bacteria that were favorable for digestion and butyrate production and thus were not obese, while the low gene count group harbored more pathogenic and pro-inflammatory bacteria and also clinically had metabolic disorders like obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. The low gene group had also had poor digestion markers like the inability to digest amino acids, which is detrimental to the host long term as amino acids are not only the building blocks in our bodies but an important factor for detox1.
Below is a list of some of the things our guts and the bugs in our guts are suppose to do on a daily basis1….
- Digestion of carbohydrates to form short chain fatty acids like butyrate (used for energy by the colon cells)
- Digestion and absorption of fatty acids to protect our cell membranes and brain
- Conversion of primary bile acids to secondary bile acids for uptake of cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K)
- Conversion of amino acids to signaling molecules like glutamate to GABA (relaxing neurotransmitter)
- Neurotransmitter production (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, glutamate)
- Synthesis of vitamin K
- Synthesis of B vitamins
- Modulation and of citric acid cycle (krebs cycle) for ATP production (energy!)
- Biotransformation of dietary polyphenols (think the foods in the rainbow!) into active compounds utilized by the body, otherwise they remain inactive
- Xenobiotic and drug metabolism through inactivation and these drugs and chemicals (an imbalanced microbiome can induce deconjugation of drugs and xenobiotics resulting in a reuptake or increase in total body load)
- Mucosal lining protection to keep our bugs in our guts!
- Production of immunoglobulins that can fight pathogens inside the GI tract and protect the mucosal lining
- Provide systemic immune modulation through the gut associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) that supports the innate and adaptive immune responses and production of T-cells, B-cells, lymphoid cells, macrophages and dendritic cells
How is this all connected to anxiety?
We all have anxiety at different points throughout our life, and if we are being honest different points throughout our day. When that anxiety becomes debilitating, constant, or chronic it is imperative to address the cause. Current pharmacologic options treat the symptom but not the cause leading to dependency on these medications, dosage changes and medication changes over time not to mention side effects of these medications.
A study done in Sweden looked at the microbiome composition of those with anxiety with age matched controls (those without anxiety). The study did a fecal microbiota transplant from healthy humans to mice and from humans with social anxiety disorder to mice (yes they put human poop into mice) to illustrate the effects of the microbiome composition on the brain. The mice were first given antibiotics to deplete their microbiome prior to fecal microbiota transplant. The mice were then tested for social fear, sociability, social cognition, and stress-coping behaviours, as well as gastrointestinal transit and motility. The findings showed2:
- Reduced social interactions
- Increased social fear response
- Reduced corticosterone production indicating likely increased cortisol production
- Reduced circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines to fight infection
- Reduced macrophages and T-cells indicating a reduction in immune memory and function
- Reduced oxytocin levels
- Reduction in blood brain barrier gene markers indicating blood brain barrier loss of integrity
- No change in gastrointestional motility
According to this study our guts are HIGHLY connected to our mental health. The mice showed reduced social interactions, increase fear, increased cortisol production (associated with anxiety), reduced immune function making these mice prone to more inflammation, and reduced oxytocin, our happy, love hormone.
So does that mean by fixing your gut you treat your brain? Yes, this absolutely has a connection.
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- Jandhyala SM, Talukdar R, Subramanyam C, Vuyyuru H, Sasikala M, Nageshwar Reddy D. Role of the normal gut microbiota. World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Aug 7;21(29):8787-803. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v21.i29.8787. PMID: 26269668; PMCID: PMC4528021.
- Ritz NL, Brocka M, Butler MI, Cryan JF. Social anxiety disorder-associated gut microbiota increases social fear. PNAS. 2023 Dec 26; 121(1): e2308706120. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2308706120