Anxiety | Is there a secret to taming it?
A New Study Says Healing the Gut is the Key

Sweaty palms, racing thoughts, nausea or dizziness, tightness in the chest and trouble catching your breath… the symptoms of anxiety are no joke. Anxiety is way more than just stress, worry, or trouble managing stress; it can be constant, unrelenting, and easily take over your life, disrupting not only your ability to relax and enjoy life but also your job, your relationships, and your health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety — there’s no shame in that. I know firsthand how horrible it can feel, because I used to suffer from severe anxiety in my teenage years and early adulthood. (By the way, most of us have!) It can be really hard to see a way out when you’re in the thick of it, which is why this week I want to dive into anxiety, what really causes it, and discuss a new study that connects anxiety to my favorite topic…

Can you guess what it is?

Yep — the gut! As it turns out, anxiety is about way more than just an imbalance in brain chemicals.

Keep reading to find out more.

I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. If you’ve got something going on with your health, there’s a good chance that your gut health has something to do with it.

The Truth About Anxiety

Did you know that an estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults have had an anxiety disorder in the past year? That means almost 1 in 5 people have a diagnosed, documented struggle with this mental health condition. In reality, that number is much higher since many people never receive treatment or talk to a professional about their anxiety. It might surprise you to hear it, considering the fact that I’m known as “America’s Gut Doctor” but I help my patients with their anxiety all the time. Why? Because no health condition exists in a vacuum.

In fact, our bodies are more connected than you can possibly imagine, and health issues — especially those involving mental health — can always benefit from a full-body approach.

Before they get to my office, many of my patients have struggled with anxiety for years or even decades. Unfortunately, many conventional doctors miss the bigger picture when it comes to treating anxiety. You’ll often hear anxiety described in the conventional medicine world as a “chemical imbalance,” but the truth is that anxiety isn’t JUST about brain chemicals. In fact, anxiety involves your whole body, and that includes the gut.

When I first talk to my patients about anxiety, I explain to them that anxiety is related to not just their thoughts and brain, but also their:

  • Nutrition status
  • Immune system health
  • Detoxification ability
  • Amount of physical activity
  • Overall sleep quality
  • Vitamin and mineral levels
  • Inflammation balance
  • Underlying chronic health conditions
And then, of course, there’s the gut, which is so important to mental health, it’s earned the nickname “the second brain.” So let’s zoom out, look at the bigger picture of anxiety, and dive into a new study that shows just how critical of a role the gut actually plays.

The Anxiety-Gut Connection

It might seem like the gut microbiome and anxiety are unrelated — one involves digestion and the other involves the brain, right? Actually, the gut and the brain aren’t quite as separate as you might think. For example, did you know that 95 percent of your serotonin, which is known as your brain’s “happy chemical” is produced in the gut? Or that the gut has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, that has nerves and neurons just like the main nervous system that involves your brain and spinal cord?

If you’ve ever felt an immediate drop in your stomach when you got bad news, or felt so excited it sent you running to the bathroom, you’ve experienced this gut-brain connection in real time.

A growing body of evidence shows that people with neurological conditions have altered gut bacteria and that certain bacteria can affect our neurological state and either improve or worsen our mental health. And now, a new study from researchers at the California Institute of Technology shows us that some types of gut bacteria may have a role to play in anxiety as well. The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, showed how gut bacteria can produce a metabolite (called 4-ethylphenyl sulfate, or 4EPS) that travels to the brain and alters the function of brain cells in a way that increases anxiety. 4EPS has previously been connected to other mental health-related issues like schizophrenia and autism; for example, a study that screened over 200 human blood samples showed that 4EPS levels were about seven times higher in children on the autism spectrum.

To figure all this out, the researchers compared two groups of lab mice. One group had gut bacteria that were engineered to produce high levels of 4EPS and the other were colonized with bacteria that could not produce the metabolite. When mice were released into a new environment and observed, the data showed that mice with high 4EPS displayed anxious behaviors like hiding or displaying an unwillingness to explore their environment. Brain scans also showed the brains of the 4EPS mice were active in regions associated with fear and anxiety.

In other words, this metabolite from specific microbes was able to affect the brain and create anxiety directly.

According to the scientists, the 4EPS was damaging to a type of cell called an oligodendrocyte. These cells are important because they help produce substances that insulate brain cells and allow them to communicate with one another quickly and effectively.The researchers went as far as to test different therapies on the mice to to lessen the effects of 4EPS on oligodendrocytes and the results were promising. Next, they plan to test all of this in humans to see if our guts react in a similar way.

This study shows us that the connections between anxiety and the microbiome can explain not only why we have symptoms, but may also hold the key to resolving them.

How to Lower Anxiety by Healing the Gut

Now, a treatment approved in humans that targets this metabolite is pretty far off. The good news is that there are steps you can take today to promote health and balance in your microbiome to ease anxiety.

When I get my patients on an anti-anxiety lifestyle plan, I often focus on the following areas:

1. Avoid excess sugar

High Carb and High Sugar Junk Food

Too much added, refined, or processed sugar is a recipe for a gut microbiome disaster. In fact, studies have already shown that a high sugar diet can create changes in the gut bacteria associated with anxiety.

2. Get plenty of fiber

Support Your Gut's Detox Capabilities with Fiber-Rich Foods

Fiber, especially fibers found in plant-based foods like fruit and leafy greens, is the food your good bacteria need to survive. Studies show that a high-fiber diet is associated with better stress resilience and increased mental health.

3. Hit the gym

Woman Doing High-Intensity Interval Training Exercises

Exercise is a known mental health booster, but did you know that changes to gut bacteria might explain why? Researchers suspect that working out boosts levels of microbes that produce a postbiotic fatty acid called butyrate that is healthy for the brain, immune system, and metabolism.

4. Eat fermented foods

fermented foods help improve anxiety

If you’re a reader of my blog or follow me on social media, you know that I’m a big fan of the benefits of fermentation. (By the way, here’s how to get started with fermentation at home!). Eating fermented foods allows you to inoculate your gut with good bacteria, which crowd out the bad guys and help you feel happier and healthier.

5. Heal the gut

Gut Superfood: Bone Broth

If you’re struggling with anxiety, I recommend taking a full-body, holistic approach to restoring your mental and physical health, including a sugar detox. One of the best ways to do this is my HAPPY GUT® RESET: 7-Day Detox Program. This program will simultaneously eliminate common gut health irritants, support liver detoxification, heal your gut on the deepest level, and inoculate your digestive tract with beneficial bacteria. When my patients complete this program, they’re often shocked when they experience not just an improvement in their skin, energy levels, sugar cravings and digestion, but also their anxiety levels, stress, and mental clarity improve as well.

Here’s the type of feedback we’ve received:

“Program was easy to follow. Never felt hungry. Cravings stopped. I lost 15 lbs.”
~ Alessandra

If you’re struggling with anxiety, I can’t stress enough how much investing in your overall health can make a difference. I’ve seen hundreds of patients go from hardly leaving the house due to anxiety, to living their best life free from excessive worry and rumination. This new study is just one more piece of evidence that having a happy gut makes all the difference in how you feel both physically AND mentally.

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