Could your gut health be causing your anxiety?

Poor gut health and anxiety are more closely linked than you might think but, thankfully, it’s easy to cure…

Studio photo of a light pink balloon ready to burst on pink background, representing the link between gut health and anxiety
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You might not realize it, but your gut health and anxiety levels are directly linked. It's why you feel 'butterflies' in your stomach before a big event or why you might feel sick during a stressful situation. Your brain and digestive system are all part of one system when it comes to how we feel, both mentally and physically.

It's not just during these big events that your gut health and anxiety are connected though, it turns out that your gut could actually be ruling your daily mood as well. While we've always known that the brain controls the gut and its workings, it's only now that we're gaining more evidence on how the gut - and the foods we eat, whether that's gut-healthy foods or the worst foods for gut health - affects the emotional state that we're understanding how gut health relates to low mood and anxiety.

So if you're looking to learn how to improve your gut health or understand more about the link between menopause and anxiety, this is what health psychologist Dr Meg Arroll wants you to know. 

How does gut health affect anxiety?

Your gut health and anxiety levels are linked because the gut has more nerve cells within it than the brain, and has many neurotransmitters associated with mood. This is why the gut is sometimes considered to be your second brain. 

“The gut, which houses the enteric nervous system, is often referred to as the 'small brain' and the actual brain is known as the 'big brain' when we discuss gut-brain interactions,” says Dr Arroll. 

The connection between the two is called the gut-brain axis or GBA and several studies, including leading review by Texas Tech University, point to the connection being the reason behind why we feel physically ill when we're anxious. 

When you think about the gut, you may picture food digesting in your stomach, but it’s the microbiome inside the large bowel that’s really important. This is the part directly connected to anxiety. The same review found that low levels of gut microbes (the trillions of microorganisms that mainly live on the inner surface of the intestines) raise the risk of anxiety and depression, while higher amounts lower it. So if you're not giving your gut the TLC it needs, it can have a huge impact on your emotional wellbeing. This is especially something to bear in mind when it comes to gut health in winter, as the lack of daylight can impact both our gut health and anxiety levels.

A selection of fermented foods sitting on a worksurface in the kitchen, highlighting the link between gut health and anxiety

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to fix gut anxiety

You can alter the condition of your gut microbiome by taking probiotics – friendly gut microbes – which may help calm an anxious mind. “Probiotics are live bacteria found in foods, such as yogurt, and in probiotic supplements – they help to populate the gut microbiota,” says Dr Arroll. 

Simply swapping your daily soft drink could also help. “Research from the University of Oxford looked at brain activity and found reduced activation in the part of the brain that controls emotional processes in participants who consumed a fermented probiotic drink, such as kombucha.” Among the many kombucha benefits, it's also known to be a natural energizer so the perfect beverage if you're looking for healthy alternatives to coffee.

Even better, on average, it only takes about two months to change the health of your gut. “Research from South China Agricultural University looked at the effect of probiotics on depression have shown that within eight weeks mood and functioning was improved,” says Dr Tina Tan.

Here's how to fix your gut health and anxiety levels, according to Dr Arroll...

  • Opt for fermented foods: “Kefir, yogurt, miso, or sauerkraut have been shown to help improve gut health. One study in association with Tokushima University Graduate School found fermented milk helped prevent symptoms of stress in students.” 
  • Eat well: “The Mediterranean diet increases beneficial gut bacteria and reduces your risk of becoming depressed by 30%.”
  • Don't take unnecessary antibiotics: “Antibiotics kill vast arrays of bacteria—they’re not sophisticated enough to just pick off the nasty types. If you have to take them, follow a medical professional’s advice.”
  • Get good sleep: “Early studies by Nova Southeastern University have shown that better quality sleep is linked to a greater diversity of species in the gut microbiota.”

How do you know if your gut is healthy?

Apart from your daily mood, your bathroom habits can be the quickest way to gauge a problem with your gut health. 

“Your stool itself may be the best test on what’s happening inside your gastrointestinal tract and how healthy your gut is,” says Dr Tan. “Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing issues, such as regular constipation or diarrhea.” 

Anything you can do, even just using natural laxatives or gut health supplements to keep your bowel movement regular, can make a difference. That's because, even if your gut is healthy now, it can easily deplete - which is why taking care of it is essential. 

It’s best to keep a diary of your nutrition habits and anxiety for eight weeks to see if there’s a change. If you continue to experience anxiety or it starts to get worse, speak to a medical professional for further advice. 

Faye M Smith

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.