The Gut-Brain Connection
Infections and other imbalances in the gut result in an inflammatory response in the brain. The inflammatory cytokine theory is well established in the scientific literature and is being embraced as the number one cause of depression.
But what about anxiety?
On a physiological level, means you can defend yourself when there is a threat and run if necessary. This sense of safety allows your body to relax and let go. Building muscle and any kind of regular movement both increase the health of the gut and trigger the parasympathetic response.
Anxiety can arise when we are not moving enough, in our heads too much, and constantly stressed. This is why exercise is such an excellent antidote. Socializing also puts us in relaxed state because on an evolutionary level, our tribe was also key to our survival.
The pain of anxiety is that it can take over completely when not kept in check. Panic attacks, weight gain/loss, poor concentration, low motivation, and fatigue are common. Skin issues also emerge from weakened immunity. These are not symptoms you have to live with.
Our Second Brain
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that receives a lot of attention so we’ll talk about it. Four hundred times more serotonin is produced in the gut than the brain. This explains why the gut is often referred to as the second brain. The gut is a branch of our nervous system called the enteric nervous system. It’s a large bundle of nerves and behaves that way. Enough serotonin means you experience pain differently, are less impulsive and cravings subside.
Gut-Brain Disorders & Disease
The link between autism spectrum disorder and fungal overgrowth in the gut is covered in this article. There is research indicating that gut health is implicated with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, schizophrenia and even psychosis. What this points to is that mental health and brain function is linked closely with gut-health. This includes anxiety.
Hormones and HPA Axis Dysfunction
We sometimes refer to this as the stress response or adrenal fatigue. HPA stands for hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Chronic stress wires us to a sympathetic state of being. This is the flight/fight/freeze response which means everything gut related is on hold including healing. Being stuck in a state of constant fatigue can feel a little like being stuck and anxious. On a physiological level we are wired to move out of the freeze state after a short time.
A state of chronic high stress requires a lot of energy. The digestive lining can begin to break down because the energy it needs is not available. Essential amino acids like glutamine that help us recover, get used up.
Do you know someone whose IBS flares when they are stressed out or travelling? Stress is affecting their gut. It also indicates their allostatic load is too high to begin with. Allostatic load refers to total stress load a person can handle. If we go beyond this then the ability to maintain homeostasis goes out the window. All kind of symptoms emerge. Often thyroid hormone gets involved as does insulin. So now we have anxiety caused by blood sugar dysregulation, thyroid disease and adrenal fatigue. No wonder we are anxious!
The Gut and Hormones
Rest and digest is the opposite or parasympathetic state. This is when we can access our second brain and recover from reasonable amounts of stress. Stress affects hormones like DHEA, cortisol and pregnenolone. These are upstream other hormones and can have an impact on neurotransmitter production. Stress is one of the primary contributors to modern inflammatory disease. We are not meant to be in a constant state of stress the way we are.
Nutrient Deficiencies & Neurotransmitters
Nutrients play an important role in mental health include B12, folate, zinc, copper, EPA and DHA, vitamin D, choline, B6 and riboflavin. Vegetarians and vegans are usually lower in many if not all of these than in omnivores.
I use urine organic acids to identify deficiencies because gut health and neurotransmitters can be assessed at the same time along with detox ability. B2, folate, choline, B6, and zinc are nutrients that are important for a process called methylation. If you’re not methylating properly, you won’t produce neurotransmitters efficiently. This can lead to anxiety and other cognitive and mood disorders.
A Few Supplements
- Ashwaghandha: in a 2012 double-blind, placebo-controlled ashwagandha extract was given twice a day for 2 months. Those taking the ashwagandha showed significant improvements with effects similar to those of lorazepan in another study. A 300 – 600 mg/day is a standard dose.
- Cannabidiol (CBD). This is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis and interestingly has an anti-anxiety effect in most people. Its important to find a water-soluble form, and in this form 250 mg a day is a good therapeutic dose. Start low and be cautious as a small percent of people experience more anxiety.
- Taurine is the amino acid that is the precursor of GABA. People with anxiety have been shown to have low levels of GABA, so taking taurine can help increase GABA levels. The recommended dose is 500 mg but again start slowly.
- L-theanine is also an amino acid that is found in green tea. It increases alpha brain waves resulting in a calming and relaxing effect without drowsiness. L-theanine can make you feel simultaneously more alert but more calm which—doesn’t everybody want that? I like the Suntheanine form and the dose can be 200 to 400 mg per day.
- Skullcap, passionflower, lavender and lemon balm: these are some of my favourite herbs for an anti-anxiety tea blend. In a month long, double-blind study comparing passionflower with a benzodiazepines benefits were the same with fewer side effects from passionflower.
Check Your Head, Heart and Body
Anxiety can show us where our growth edge is. Relating to it with kindness is key. Years ago I was on a meditation retreat when my teacher pointed out that anxiety isn’t all bad. Like other difficulties that show up in life, it can lead us a new direction if we are able to embrace it. Anxiety is both exciting and frightening.
- Slow Down: This is easier said than done. However by choosing what you take in each day in terms of media and food we build a simpler foundation. Spend some time in your comfort zone and sometime in your growth zone.
- Connect with Your Body: Using meditation to actually tune into your body will help you learn to listen to the body’s cues and be responsive to them. This puts us at ease. Its like a child who is listened to and heard being able to go play. When basic needs are met we can fly!
- Notice Your Surroundings: This brings us into the present moment. It also helps us enjoy life more which kicks in all of the good neurotransmitters, hormonal cascades and endorphins.
- Focus on what is Nourishing: Feeling pleasure and safety supports the parasympathetic response. By thinking or noticing these we can move forward with the anxiety. My doctor taught us to look at life as a blessing. When we do this a lot changes.
- Change your Gaze: Looking into the distance, around at nature or into the eyes of someone who you love will shift your brain and the anxiety. Pets are great for this as are children, gardens and anything that creates a non-structured, enjoyable environment.
Anxiety is not so different from a lot of other aspects of being human. When it becomes very loud we have to pay more attention. This is the case when we get really sick. It usually is a blessing in disguise though it doesn’t always seem this way especially at the beginning.
Milestones in life sometime also cause us to pay attention. When someone we love dies for example or a birthday comes along that causes us to self-reflect on how we are living.
Aging is like anxiety in that, as a culture, we’d prefer it to go away. Yet by looking directly at it we notice aspects of our-self that we may have missed otherwise. By tending to these parts we grow more rapidly in the direction we want. Know that you can be at ease in your own skin again.