The idea that the millions and millions of bacteria in your gut — your microbiome — play a significant role in your psychological well-being may sound preposterous, but an increasing number of studies show just that.
Exactly what is the gut microbiome? “The gut microbiome is the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms [both good and bad] that exist within an ecosystem in our gut,” says Christopher Damman, MD, a clinical associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer at Muniq, a probiotic shake producer.
And that community of microbes has a lot to do with your overall physical and psychological health. Specifically, research has shown it may play a role in several mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in America, affecting 40 million U.S. adults, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Currently, the standard treatments for these conditions are psychotherapy (aka “talk therapy”) and medications. Experts are eager to learn more about the gut-anxiety connection in order to find better treatments for anxiety disorders, since standard treatments are effective for many people but not for all.
While there’s growing interest the gut-anxiety relationship, the research is still in its early stages. Here’s what scientists do know about the connection so far — and what it could mean for the future treatment of anxiety.
The Relationship Between the Gut Microbiome and Anxiety Is a 2-Way Street
A scientific review published in May 2019 in General Psychiatry suggests that gut microbiota regulate brain function by way of the gut-brain axis, a communication network through which the brain can influence the gut and vice versa.
Preliminary evidence shows that imbalances in gut microbiota can exert a powerful influence on the brain via the gut-brain axis in ways that affect anxiety. What’s more, disturbances in neurotransmitters — brain chemicals that send signals throughout the body — may play a role in psychological conditions like anxiety. This connection is important because, per research published in June 2021 in Nutrients, gut microbiota are believed to help regulate neurotransmitters.
Emerging Data Hints That a Healthy Gut May Ease Anxiety
Research also points to interventions that may help regulate gut microbiota, in turn alleviating anxiety symptoms.
According to the aforementioned General Psychiatry review, which included 21 studies with more than 1,500 participants, gut-friendly dietary changes and other simple steps may help reduce anxiety. They also found that taking in probiotics — good-for-you microorganisms in food and in supplements — could be helpful, though to a lesser extent.
“Since the microbiome is a dynamic community that can be altered by external variables like diet, exercise, and medications, it provides an intriguing opportunity as a target for new treatments or interventions,” says Bryn Sachdeo, PhD, a review editor for the journal Frontiers in Nutrition and a scientist who studies the gut-brain axis.
Research Still Has a Long Way to Go
Despite these discoveries, current research doesn’t paint a complete picture of the gut-anxiety connection. “The vast majority of research exploring the connection between the gut microbiome and anxiety are preclinical studies,” says Dr. Sachdeo. In other words, experts have much more to learn.
In addition, studies thus far have been too small to draw firm conclusions about the gut-anxiety connection. Future studies to confirm these early findings will need to be much larger.
3 Ways to Start Tackling Gut Issues and Anxiety Today
So, what does this mean for you if you have an anxiety disorder?
Experts have pinpointed lifestyle changes you can make now to improve the health of your gut and manage your anxiety. If your doctor gives you the all clear, consider trying these science-backed strategies.
1. Make Fiber a Staple in Your Diet
“An accessible and affordable way to positively influence your gut microbiota is to increase the amount of fiber in your diet, ideally from a wide variety of plant sources,” Sachdeo says. “Our diet is the number one factor that influences the composition of our gut microbiome.”
Science backs that up: A review published in March 2020 in Nutrients linked a diet high in fiber with beneficial changes in gut microbiota. Another review, published in July 2018 in Nutritional Neuroscience, found that a diet rich in fiber may reduce the risk of anxiety and related mental health issues.
Currently, experts recommend that adults eat 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories they consume each day. Some high-fiber foods you could add to your diet:
- Fruits, including pears, strawberries, avocados, apples, raspberries, and bananas
- Vegetables, such as carrots, beets, broccoli, artichokes, and Brussels sprouts
- Legumes, like kidney beans, split peas, and chickpeas
2. Add Aerobic Exercise to Your Daily Routine
Exercise offers a plethora of well-documented health benefits, including better gut health. According to a review published in April 2019 in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, exercise can alter the composition of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut, which could in turn could foster mental well-being.
Physical activity is proven to do wonders for mental health, too. According to a study of more than 400,000 people in Sweden, published in September 2021 in Frontiers in Psychiatry, regular exercise may reduce the risk of anxiety disorders by as much as 60 percent.
3. Set Aside Time for Mindfulness Every Day
Mindfulness — a type of meditation that involves sitting quietly with your eyes closed and observing the thoughts and images that float through your mind without judgment — can be helpful for managing both anxiety and gut issues.
“There’s a lot of really good research on mindfulness-based stress reduction that has been used in the context of irritable bowel syndrome [a gut disorder] and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD [a type of anxiety disorder],” says Dr. Damman.
For instance, a small study published in December 2018 in the Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine found that veterans with PTSD and IBS who practiced mindfulness for eight weeks experienced fewer symptoms afterward.
How often should you engage in mindfulness to reap the benefits? A study published online in April 2019 in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that a mindfulness practice of just 15 minutes a day lowered stress and increased well-being.
Two mindfulness exercises you could try, per Mayo Clinic:
- Sitting meditation Sitting with your back straight and your hands in your lap, focus on your breath as it flows in and out of your nose. Return your focus to your breath if any thoughts or sensations interrupt you.
- Body scan meditation Slowly focus your attention on each part of your body consecutively from head to toe (or vice versa) and take note of any thoughts or feelings associated with each area of your body.