The Wavelength

What is an anxious gut?

Have you ever had "butterflies" when you're nervous? Or maybe you've felt sad and either lost your appetite or overate? That's because our gut microbiome connection plays a huge role in how we feel, earning the nickname the second brain (1).

The gut is lined with a network of neurons brimming with essential neurotransmitters—chemical messengers in the body that regulate daily functions like mood, heart rate, sleep, digestion, and more. Our gut and brain directly communicate with each other through the gut-brain connection. When our gut microbiome has good bacteria, it produces mood-boosting neurochemicals. But when we're stressed or feeling down, it can take a toll on our digestion, often furthering our anxiety with gastrointestinal (GI) problems and creating what's known as an anxious gut.

What are the signs of an anxious gut?
Whether you're uneasy about public speaking or dealing with chronic stress, your body reacts to anxiety by releasing hormones that can negatively impact gut flora (microorganisms in the digestive tract) and decrease antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can lead to many gastrointestinal concerns, including poor digestion (2).

Microbiome irregularities can weaken the gut wall. The gut wall serves as a barrier, preventing harmful bacteria from entering the bloodstream. This gut bacteria can leak through the gut lining and into our blood when the gut wall is weakened, often causing a leaky gut. While other compounds need to travel through this barrier, we generally want to keep our bacteria confined there so it doesn't release throughout the body and potentially cause mental and physical damage.

Physical signs of an anxious gut may include:
  • Indigestion
  • Burping
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excess hunger
  • Nausea
The gut-brain connection to food
In 2018, a study compared the microbiota in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to those of healthy controls (3). The researchers found that patients with GAD had sparser and less diverse bacteria than their healthy counterparts. Specifically, bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids were scarce, and there was an overgrowth of "bad" bacteria.

When we consume sugar, it causes our blood sugar levels to spike, but that rise in blood sugar must come down at some point. Most of us know that feeling as an energy crash after eating simple carbohydrates like a sugary donut. A more complex fiber-rich breakfast will help keep our blood sugar and emotions on a more even keel. One nutritious and easy breakfast that is vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free and doesn't require early-morning prep is chia pudding topped with nuts and berries (check out my recipe on pg. 225 of This Is Your Brain on Food).

What can you do to combat an anxious gut?
  • Avoid the SAD: The Standard American Diet (SAD), also called the western diet, is often composed of bad fats (trans fats and inflammatory vegetable oils), simple carbohydrates, sweetened drinks (especially those sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup), and savory foods that contain added sugars. While there’s no question that this diet is bad for your physical health, it undoubtedly also affects mental health.
  • Cut back on caffeine: Pay attention to body intelligence, a pillar in Nutritional Psychiatry. Coffee is rich in multiple polyphenols, which are healthy, but caffeine can overstimulate brain regions that process threats and shut down a region that can help regulate anxiety. You don’t need to quit caffeine entirely, but consider cutting back. Wean off caffeine slowly to minimize side effects from caffeine withdrawal. As an option, consider caffeine-free sources to bolster energy and keep cognition sharp, like B12+Folate.
  • Moderate alcohol consumption: While healthy lifestyles do have room for an occasional margarita, it’s best to minimize alcohol which not only offers empty calories, but disturbs sleep, increases anxiety, and lower inhibitions that make fast food look like a good option. Instead of drinking wine every night, try a healthy alternative that doesn’t make you feel like you’re depriving yourself and offers relaxation effects. As an option, try Blueshift Calm after a long day.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners have no nutritional value and increase “bad” gut bacteria, impacting gut health and mood. Sweeteners like aspartame have been directly linked with anxiety in research studies and should be avoided or used in moderation.
  • Rule out gluten as the culprit: While gluten may not affect everyone, consider getting tested for celiac disease or try a gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if it reduces your symptoms.
Additionally, there are certain nutrients to prioritize for a healthy, happy gut. These include:

  • Dietary fiber: Dietary fiber is a broad category of food ingredients nondigestible by our natural gut enzymes. Our guts can't break down fiber, but different types of gut bacteria can. When dietary fiber can be broken down by bacteria, it's "fermentable." Fermentable dietary fiber promotes the growth of "good" gut bacteria. For example, when dietary fiber is broken down into specific smaller sugar molecules, the "good" bacteria Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus increase, positively affecting mood by activating brain pathways and nerve signaling that can alleviate anxiety (4).
    • Fuel up with fiber-rich foods like beans, brown rice, berries, bran, pears, apples, bananas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, artichokes, almonds, walnuts, amaranth, oats, buckwheat, and pearl barley. When a probiotic supplement is needed, an option is the Blueshift Pre+Probiotic Ultra which contains 50 billion CFUs and has 3.5 grams of prebiotics from organic fruit and fiber for a happy gut microbiome.
  • Omega-3s: In 2018, a study found that, specifically, the more omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid people consumed, the less anxiety they had. The study also found that a higher ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s led to increased anxiety levels. Also, in 2018, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of nineteen clinical trials, including 2,240 participants from eleven countries, which showed that omega-3s were associated with a reduction in anxiety symptoms (5).
    • Focus on Omega-3-rich foods like mackerel, salmon, anchovies, oysters, and sardines. If you're not getting at least two servings of fatty fish a week, take a daily fish oil supplement.
  • B Vitamins: Vitamin B1 (Thiamine), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Up to 250 mg of thiamine has been shown to be effective for anxiety (6). In animal studies, thiamine appears to reduce stress-like responses because it protects the hippocampus (7). Other B vitamins have specific anti-anxiety properties too. For example, in older women and women suffering from premenstrual stress, vitamin B6 may provide significant relief (8). And many other studies have demonstrated that vitamin B complex can reduce anxiety, possibly by reducing oxidative stress in the brain (9).
    • Wild salmon, leafy greens, eggs, legumes, tofu, green peas, pork, and avocado are excellent foods to boost Vitamin B intake. Blueshift Calm helps people unwind and relax and delivers six B-complex vitamins, including vitamin B1 (thiamine), riboflavin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) pantothenic acid, folic acid, and vitamin B12.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is often called the "relaxation mineral." Magnesium deficiency is associated with high anxiety levels. For example, when people are anxious while taking a test, they excrete more magnesium than usual in their urine. Most studies show a difference in anxiety levels after an intake of magnesium over six to twelve weeks (10).
    • Up your magnesium intake with foods like pumpkin and chia seeds, almonds, spinach, and cashews. For weeks you can't keep track of your magnesium intake, Blueshift Magnesium blend packs in 150mg from four highly bioavailable forms, meaning they are readily available for your body to use and easy on your stomach.*
Optimize your mental health by incorporating low-intensity exercise, practicing mindfulness, and incorporating your favorite forms of self-care to keep stress at bay. Above all, eating a nutritious diet and supplementing with the right vitamins and minerals can set your "second brain" up for success and go from an anxious gut to a happy, healthy gut.

By Dr. Uma Naidoo

About the author:

Dr. Uma Naidoo is the world's first "triple threat" in the food and medicine space: a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, Professional Chef graduating with her culinary school's most coveted award, and a Nutritional Biologist. She is the author of the national best-selling book, "This Is Your Brain on Food," which draws on cutting-edge research to explain how food contributes to our mental health. Learn more about Dr. Uma here.

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  2. Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). "How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection." July, 2018, adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection.
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