Can poor gut health cause anxiety?

Has your poor gut health been causing you to worry incessantly during the day and toss and turn at night? If so, you’re not alone.

The relationship between the gut and brain are closer than you think. 

In 2012, a study was published in the Journal of Digestive Diseases that examined the differences in the prevalence and severity of anxiety and depression in patients with functional dyspepsia (FD), nonerosive reflux disease (NERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and healthy controls. It was determined that anxiety is more common in patients with IBS than in those with FD and NERD, indicating a possible causal link to the former.

If you take care of your gut health, you can improve your overall quality of life, easing anxiety and physical pain.

The gut health and mind connection

Recent scientific findings from the Department of Psychiatry, Health Sciences Center, Texas Tech University, TX, USA, suggests a strong connection between the condition of your gut and the state of your mind. In fact, the correlation between the two may start at a very early age.

An Australian study conducted by Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute analysed the behaviour of 201 child subjects in the Barwon Infant Study (BIS). The stool samples of the children were analysed when they were one, six, and 12 months of age. The children’s behavioural results were then assessed when they turned two. 

The findings revealed children who had lower amounts of the Prevotella bacteria—which helps convert plant-based nutrients into antioxidants—in their poo at 12 months of age were more likely to develop childhood anxiety than the other subjects. The study also revealed that children with less Prevotella bacteria in their gut consumed antibiotics. 

This was one of the first significant human studies which compared infants’ gut bacteria to their subsequent behaviour.

Gut factors which affect anxiety levels 

Several gut health factors can drastically affect a full-grown adult’s stress response and anxiety levels:

  • Nutrient malabsorption. Scientific findings reveal that low levels of iron, folate, vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium, and zinc have links to increased anxiety symptoms. Unfortunately, low levels of these nutrients offset the effects of anxiety medication. 

    Factors which affect nutrient malabsorption include lactose intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), coeliac disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), inflammation, dysbiosis, and certain medicines, including pain relievers (NSAIDs), contraceptive pills, proton pump inhibitors, and antacids.  
  • Lipopolysaccharide (LPS). An individual who has a leaky gut has high LPS levels. When LPS seeps into the bloodstream, it elicits an inflammatory response from the body. LPS can also lower levels of the compound serotonin—which stabilises your moods—in the brain and consequently, make you more anxious. LPS can also increase production of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Dysbiosis: Dysbiosis means you have an imbalance of bacteria in your gut. If you have lower amounts of beneficial bacteria such as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, you may feel more anxious.
  • Inflammation: Beneficial gut bacteria are vital because they help reduce inflammation. When your gut is inflamed, you may develop anxiety.

    Gut inflammation also converts the neurotransmitter serotonin into kynurenic acid, which increases symptoms of anxiety.

These factors clearly establish a connection between your gut health and anxiety levels. Don’t wait until anxiety kicks in and disrupts your lifestyle drastically. Now—not later—is the best time to take care of your gut health.

Poor gut health and anxiety: a two-way street?

Harvard Health Publishing wrote an article in April 2021 stating that a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. A person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression due to the brain and the GI system being intimately connected.    

Regardless of the magnitude of your condition, worry and anxiety will only exacerbate it. If you do not quell your anxiety, your gut health will continue to deteriorate. 

For example, IBS patients with anxiety struggle with their symptoms for a longer period of time than patients who have no anxiety. One possible cause is the two-way relationship between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS). The former includes the spinal cord and brain while the latter controls your gastrointestinal system. 

The latest scientific studies also suggest anxiety is a strong risk factor for IBS. If you have this mental disorder, your chances of developing IBS double. If your physician diagnosed you with a prior gastrointestinal condition, your chances of developing IBS will increase even more. 

How can I take care of my gut health?

One way to prevent anxiety is by taking care of your gut health. Here are several ways which can help improve your gut function:

  1. Eat the right foods. Fatty and processed foods as well as refined sugars destroy the good bacteria which help boost gut health. They also promote the growth of bad bacteria. Eating foods which help good bacteria thrive in your gut will go a long way in keeping your digestive and mental health in check. These good foods include:
  • Collagen-boosting foods: Collagen promotes proper gastric acid secretion which helps improve your digestion. It also helps heal stomach ulcers, leaky gut, and the intestinal and stomach lining. Foods rich in collagen include bone broth and salmon.
  • High-fibre foods: Fibre promotes the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Oats, leeks, asparagus, berries, bananas, peas, legumes, and beans are excellent sources of fibre.
  • Fermented foods: Kefir, miso, tempeh, yoghurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are outstanding sources of probiotics, which help prevent diarrhoea and constipation.
  1. Eat slowly. Doing so helps promote proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Eating slowly also helps minimise digestive discomfort, which can take a toll on your gut function.
  1. Check for food intolerances. If you manifest symptoms such as acid reflux, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea, bloating, cramping, and abdominal pain whenever you eat certain foods, you may have a food intolerance. Our team of dietitians and nutritionists can help you identify which foods trigger these symptoms so you can minimise your discomfort. 
  1. Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated boosts the mucosal lining of your intestines and maintains the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. The adequate daily water intake is 3.7 litres for men and 2.7 litres for women.
  1. Prioritise sleep. Lack of sleep makes your gut more prone to inflammation. If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you may develop ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or IBS. Insufficient sleep can also increase your stress levels. Try getting seven to nine hours of sleep every night so you can improve your gut function and overall health. 
  1. Manage your stress levels. High stress levels can trigger a fight-or-flight response and cause digestive issues. Maintain a healthy work-life balance and practise stress-busting techniques such as meditation and massage therapy to keep your stress levels in check. 

A vicious cycle 

Can poor gut health cause anxiety? Yes, modern scientific findings suggest several GI conditions—from short-term digestive conditions to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)—have links to this mental disorder.

Unfortunately, the relationship between poor gut health and anxiety can also swing the opposite way: excessive worrying and nervousness can produce adverse effects on your gut function. Uncontrolled anxiety can produce a vicious cycle which may have repercussions on your long-term health.

The key takeaway is that we should never take our gut and mental health for granted. 

Practising good nutrition, eating slowly, checking for food intolerances, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress levels can boost your gut function, mental well-being, and overall quality of life. 

Need our help? 

Ask us your questions about how you can improve your gut health! Schedule an appointment with one of our registered nutritionists or accredited practising dietitians by calling us at (07) 3071-7405 between 8am to 6pm from Monday to Friday. Alternatively, you can send us an enquiry and we will get back to you as soon as we can.