By Faye M Smith
You may not realize it, but your gut health and anxiety levels are directly linked. This is why before a big event you may feel “butterflies” in your stomach, or you might even feel sick during a stressful situation. It's not just during these big events that your gut health and anxiety are connected—it turns out that your gut could actually be ruling your daily mood.
“For a long time, we knew that the brain controlled the gut and its workings, but now we’re gaining more evidence on how the gut can affect our emotional state,” says health psychologist Dr. Meg Arroll. “We’re just beginning to understand how gut health is related to low mood and anxiety.”
The good news is that ensuring you have a healthier gut could be as simple as investing in one of the best blenders and whipping up a probiotic-rich smoothie each morning.
So, if you think your gut could be letting you down when it comes to daily anxiety, sleep anxiety or even sexual anxiety, here’s how to give it the boost it needs…
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. "When you have a 'gut feeling' or 'butterflies' it’s most likely signals transmitting through this GBA," says Dr. Tina Tan.
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.
That’s because researchers found that low levels of gut microbes (the trillions of microorganisms that mainly live on the inner surfaces of our 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 big impact on your emotional wellbeing.
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 help. “Research looking at brain activity found reduced activation in the part of the brain that controls emotional processes in participants who consumed a fermented probiotic drink, such as kombucha.” Kombucha benefits also include more energy and less headaches, so is well worth a try.
Even better, on average, it only takes about two months to change the health of your gut. “Studies looking at the effect of probiotics on depression have shown that within eight weeks mood and functioning was improved,” says Dr. Arroll.
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 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 have shown that better quality sleep is linked to a greater diversity of species in the gut microbiota.”
Which probiotic is good for anxiety?
Knowing whether to choose prebiotics vs probiotics to help with gut health and anxiety can be confusing. In this case, to help with anxiety, you should look for a probiotic with lactobacillus and bifidobacteria on the label. These are the most popular “friendly bacteria” used in probiotic supplements. "‘The more diverse and balanced the gut microbiota, the better," says Dr. Tan.
Here’s our pick of the best…
Taken daily, this supplement helps re-colonize the gut with healthy bacteria. Clinical trials have found it can improve the ability to cope and process stress. Customer reviews include that it’s helped people feel calmer when faced with stress at work, helped raise happiness levels and can also help solve sleep problems.
This extra-strength buy can help balance and recharge the gut especially after damage from toxins, such as smoking or stress. That’s because it contains seven strains of high-quality live cultures, plus calcium to help your body even further. It’s also lactose-, dairy-, and gluten-free, and suitable for vegans.
Healthspan Super20 Pro
These combine 20 billion friendly bacteria from five strains. A great lactose-free pick—just take one to two each day with water. Reviewers say these can also make a difference when it comes to bloating and stomach problems caused by IBS. Plus, they are vegan and ideal for a lactose-free diet.
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 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 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 theHealth Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021.
Currently Acting 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. In fact, having previously been the go-to sex columnist for Now magazine, there isn't much she won't discuss when it comes to women's health. This makes her the best person to review must-buy sex toys, describe how to have a mind-blowing orgasm or explain how to navigate sex in the shower without it ending in a medical emergency.
While not anti-gym, Faye’s fitness routine is more focussed on finding inner balance rather than burning excess calories. An advocate of mindfulness, she loves power breathing, yoga and plenty of walking in nearby woodlands rather than a sweaty HIIT class. Follow her @fayetuned
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