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4 Things to Do for Your Gut-Brain Axis to Help Anxiety

Anxiety has a lot to do with activity in the brain. Anxiety also has a lot to do with activity in the gut. The health of our gut plays a significant role in our mood, anxiety levels, and overall mental health and wellbeing. This means that one effective way to help anxiety is to take good care of the gut and the gut-brain axis. Read on to discover why, and learn four ways to reduce anxiety through your digestive system. 

The Relationship Between Anxiety and the Gut-Brain Axis

The mind and body are intricately connected, and what goes on in one directly affects the other. The gut is highly complex, with its own nervous system that is in constant two-way communication with the brain along a pathway dubbed the gut-brain axis. (See "Gut Problems Can Cause Anxiety: The Role of the Gut-Brain Axis.")

The health of the gut can and does affect mood and anxiety, and gut problems can be both a cause of anxiety and an effect of it1,2,3. The more researchers discover about our primary brain and our second brain (a nickname for the gut), the more they understand how to help the health of both. It may seem surprising, but it's true: You can manage anxiety by taking good care of your gut4. While this alone won't magically erase all anxiety, it can go a long way in helping you feel better mentally and physically. 

4 Ways to Take Care of Your Gut-Brain Axis to Reduce Anxiety

The goal of any strategy that addresses gut health and the functioning of the gut-brain axis is to soothe irritation and reduce the body's stress response. The fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system puts the whole body, including the gut, on high alert for problems. Stress hormones like cortisol flood our system and course through it. The immune system, a lot of whose activity takes place in the gut's nervous system (the enteric nervous system), is adversely affected by the stress reaction, too. Irritation and inflammation abound, which not only causes pain and digestive troubles but directly impacts the brain and mental health.

Any of these strategies heal the gut, improve the functioning of the gut-brain axis, and reduce anxiety. Because they work on all three levels, they can make you feel calmer when used regularly and consistently. 

  1. Reduce inflammation with diet. Foods impacts mood5. What we eat can contribute to anxiety, in part because it hurts the gut. Foods that are processed, fried, and high in unhealthy fats are linked to inflammation and poor functioning overall6. Opt instead for produce, whole grains, and other foods that help calm anxiety and stress. To further soothe your gut and anxiety, choose healthy foods and eat them mindfully rather than on the run or distracted by electronics. 
  2. Use mindfulness to redirect your thoughts. Mindfulness is a way of experiencing life that involves paying full attention to the moment you're in, even if that moment is stressful or problematic7. It doesn't erase problems, but it helps pull you out of your head and anxious thoughts so you can focus on what you are doing right now. Mindfulness has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, largely because you are choosing what you pay attention to (your present moment rather than thoughts about the past or future). 
  3. Try meditation and deep breathing. Meditation is a formal practice of concentrating on something specific, such as your breathing or a particular sight, sound, texture, smell, or taste. It can be done sitting or with movement (like walking or yoga). Deep breathing is a component of meditation, but you can also cultivate the habit of breathing slowly and deeply no matter what you're doing, even if you are in the middle of an anxiety-provoking situation. Both calm the stress response and soothe both gut and brain by switching activity in your sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems8
  4. Practice vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). The vagus nerve is a key component of the gut-brain axis. It's important in calming the stress response and facilitating proper digestion. You can directly enhance the functioning of this nerve with deep breathing and meditation. Light exercise positively impacts the VNS, too. You can also hum or gargle, as these constrict the throat to stimulate the nerve and activate other cranial and enteric nerves9

New habits can be hard to establish. Start small by choosing just one of these methods. Incorporate it into your daily routine by pairing it with something you already do to practice self-care or by setting a regular time to fit it into your day. Even spending just five minutes on one of these or replacing one aggravating food with one healthier alternative will go a long way toward soothing your gut and nurturing your gut-brain axis to reduce anxiety. The more you practice these over time, the more smoothly your body-mind will operate and the better you will feel physically and mentally. 

Sources

  1. Clapp, M. et al., "Gut Microbiota's Effect on Mental Health: The Gut-Brain Axis." Clinics and Practice, September 2017. 
  2. Harvard Medical School, "The Gut-Brain Connection." Harvard Health Publishing, April 2021. 
  3. Hadhazy, A., "Think Twice: How the Gut's 'Second Brain' Influences Mood and Well-Being." Scientific American, February 2010. 
  4. Yang, B. et al., "Effects of Regulating Intestinal Microbiota on Anxiety Symptoms: A Systematic Review." BMJ Journals: General Psychiatry, 2019.
  5. Magill, A., "What Is the Relationships between Food and Mood?" Mental Health First Aid, March 2018. 
  6. Kordsmier, K., "5 Ways to Reduce Inflammation and Take Control of Your Gut Health." Healthline, February 2019.
  7. Kabat-Zinn, J., "Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness." NY: Hachette Books, 2005.
  8. Hoffman, S.G. et al., "The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010. 
  9. Fallis, J., "How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health." SASS UOttowa, January 2017.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, August 19). 4 Things to Do for Your Gut-Brain Axis to Help Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, October 24 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/8/4-things-to-do-for-your-gut-brain-axis-to-help-anxiety



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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