What Your Doctor Hasn’t Told You About Anxiety [HINT: It’s Not Just In Your Brain]

If you’re struggling with anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ve looked for support either online or from your doctor. There’s also a good chance that the only advice you were given included things like cognitive behavioral therapy or medications, like SSRIs, like Prozac or Zoloft, or Benzos like Xanax or Lorazepam. If your doctor was really progressive, he or she may have even suggested more holistic relaxation techniques like meditation, breathwork, or yoga.

All of these pieces of advice — for example, medication, therapy, and mindfulness practices — can be helpful in their own way, and I don’t want to discount their value in certain scenarios. However, even medications have only been proven to be 50% effective in studies, so we need a different approach to anxiety to hack what is really happening internally.

Today I want to talk about what your doctor HASN’T told you about anxiety and mental health as a whole. Spoiler alert! It’s intricately connected to your gut and what you eat.

Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection

Conventional mental health advice often tells us that anxiety is a chemical imbalance; an issue that results from an imbalance in brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA that make us feel happy and relaxed. They often leave out the fact that many brain chemicals rely on the gut. For example, more than 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut

Studies have demonstrated this connection directly. For example, the authors of a systematic review paper wrote that “more and more basic studies have indicated that gut microbiota can regulate brain function through the gut-brain axis, and dysbiosis of intestinal microbiota was related to anxiety.” Another review paper looked at 21 studies, some of which used probiotic interventions and others used dietary interventions to reduce the harmful bacteria in the gut. The results showed that 11 out of 21 studies demonstrated a positive effect on anxiety symptoms by regulating the intestinal microbiota. Of the 14 studies that had used probiotics as the intervention, more than one third showed that they were effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. Even more, six of the remaining seven studies that had used dietary  interventions found those to be effective, which cumulatively is an effectiveness rate of 86%. 

Imbalances between gut bacteria and an unhealthy gut can also trigger chronic inflammation, which is now being identified as one of the main underlying causes of depression and anxiety. For example, studies have shown that certain inflammatory chemicals, called cytokines, are reliably elevated in a significant proportion of patients with major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Can I scream this from the rooftops? So many people are suffering, and they don’t realize it’s not “all in their heads.”

Making this known to the masses is a really big deal and could be a game changer in how we view and treat mental illness! Especially considering these facts:

  • According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. 
  • A 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University found anxiety has taken over depression as the number one mental-health concern.
  • According to Google Trends, the number of anxiety web searches has nearly doubled over the last five years.

Meet the Vagus Nerve

The connection between the gut and anxiety isn’t just about the gut bacteria, either. There are also important anatomical connections, mainly one large nerve called the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain, down the neck, and innervates most major organs, including the gut. In the last few years researchers have identified this nerve as the key regulator of the gut-brain axis. It’s one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as our “rest and digest” system and controls that “gut feeling” many of us get when something just doesn’t feel quite right. The vagus nerve modulates a wide range of bodily functions, including:

  • Mood and mental health 
  • Heart rate 
  • Digestion (enzyme secretion and stomach acid levels)
  • Gut motility
  • Gut permeability
  • Immunity 
  • The stress response


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