Could Gut Bacteria Be Causing Your Anxiety?

Ever had a gut feeling? Or a sensation of butterflies in your stomach? Our gut and our brain may be more connected than than it might seem. 

Illustration by Gaby D'Allesandro

Illustration by Gaby D'Allesandro

The digestive system and the bacteria colonies that inhabit it, are known as our second brain. The good bacteria, called symbionts, are responsible for regulating immune function, aiding digestion and absorption, making vitamins, and reducing bloating. These good bacteria require fiber and are nourished by whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Pathobionts, which are the disease causing microbes, are fed by meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods/fast food. 

We can choose which bacteria we want to nourish and thrive, by eating the foods that the good bacteria like to eat, fiber-rich whole plant foods. Eat more fiber and these anti-inflammatory bacteria will thrive, eat less fiber and they will die off. 

Through research on laboratory mice, we have seen how gut bacteria can have a direct effect on mood and demeanor. They were able to reduce anxiety in stressed mice by feeding them the healthy microbes from fecal material collected from calm mice. They also fed the mice probiotics to encourage the continued growth of healthy bacteria, and over the next few weeks their stress levels continued to diminish (1).

The absence of these good gut bacteria has been linked not only to anxiety, but also eating disorders, PTSD, depression, obesity, autism, IBS, and many other chronic conditions. It might be that many mental and physical health conditions are due to unhealthy populations of gut bacteria, and can be corrected with proper diet. 

When I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, PTSD from childhood trauma, as well as anorexia, at the time my diet consisted of daily egg and cheese sandwiches, pringles, and nutter butter cookies. I had no interest in food, so I chose what was most convenient and foods I had always liked as a kid. For about four years I ate this way, and my mental and physical health began to deteriorate. I tried many medications to dull the symptoms, and while they were helpful in some ways, they didn't ever solve the problem. 

I did eventually find a depression medication that worked well for me, and while on it I started to care about my health and wellbeing again. This snapped me out of it just enough that I was able to develop a genuine interest in which foods were healthy and also the ethics of my food choices. I was ready to face the truth of the cruel and also unhealthy foods I was eating and went vegan overnight after watching a few documentaries. At first I still ate some processed vegan foods, but slowly I learned how to cook vegetables, beans, whole grains and other healthy plant foods and made these the main focus of my diet. 

I felt so much better immediately that I was able to go right off my medication, and I continued to feel more clarity and calmness while the anxiety and depression diminished. The apathy I felt around food, which was fueled by my depression and causing a lack of appetite, had completely disappeared and was replaced by a curiosity and enthusiasm to try new healthy recipes. 

If you suffer from any emotional imbalances or patterns of anxious thoughts, one of the first things you try should be a whole foods plant based diet. Gradually, make more of your meals based around unprocessed plant foods and save the junk for special occasions. You will feel a major shift in your wellbeing and ability to handle all of the ups and downs life throws at us. When our gut bacteria are happy and well fed, so are we.