As reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, anxiety is the most common reported mental health condition in Australia. It affects one in every four people. Anxiety involves feelings associated with nervousness and tension. Specific anxiety disorders may result in physical symptoms such as problems with breathing, shaking, and sweating.
Some ways to deal with anxiety include:
1) Seeking professional help from a GP or psychologist
2) Staying connected with close friends, family or a support group
4) Complementary therapies such as herbs, yoga, or meditation
5) Improving on diet and nutrition
This post will touch of the complex relationship between our brain, gut, and immune system and why we should support these systems with good nutrition to help improve anxiety.
The Second Brain – connection between our gut and brain
The digestive system has its own complex system of nerves called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which function independently to the central nervous system. The ENS plays a role in digestion, absorption of nutrients, motility, inflammation, nutrient synthesis, and secretion within the gastrointestinal tract. These network of nerves are found all along the lining of our gut. Our second brain (enteric nervous system) communicates with our ‘real’ brain (central nervous system) via the vagus nerve. There is a bidirectional relationship between our gut and our brain suggesting that what we think/feel in our head may affect our gut function and what we consume, may affect our brain function.
It is important to note that approximately 70% of our immune cells are in our gut. Proper immune function is integral to proper functioning of our whole body. Therefore, it is starting to become evident how the health of our gut may play a role in the health of our brain and ultimately, our overall health.
The ENS, Neurotransmitters and Anxiety
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow signals to cross synapse (biological junction) and transmit information from a nerve cell to target cell. Research has shown that there are high levels of neurotransmitters in the gut. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in our mood and how we feel.
Dopamine (reward hormone) – low levels can affect our mood, sleep quality, and immune health
GABA (major mood modulator) – low levels can contribute to anxiety, restlessness, and reduced gut motility
Serotonin (‘happiness’ hormone) – low levels may increase risk of anxiety, poor sleep quality, and compromised gut function (90% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut)
Epinephrine (fight-or-flight hormone) – abnormal levels lead to poor sleep quality, mood disorders, and poor immunity.
How can Nutrition help?
By choosing the right foods, we can support the health of our gut, immune system, and brain which may help reduce the impact that anxiety may have on an individual.
The first step will be removing common foods that irritate the gut and may contribute to dysbiosis (imbalances within gut flora) in the gut. These include added sugar from confectionery, refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils and foods very high in insoluble fibre. Certain individuals with existing gastrointestinal issues may benefit from excluding gluten and lactose containing foods.
What to have instead:
Good quality meats (grass-fed, organic meat where possible) for:
1) Zinc to help heal the gut lining, convert tryptophan to serotonin and for a healthy immune system
2) Vitamin B5 to help maintain a healthy digestive tract
3) Vitamin B12 to maintain a healthy nervous system
4) Glutamine to repair gut permeability
Choline which is used to make acetylcholine (neurotransmitter), necessary for normal nerve function
Fish (Salmon, sardines, mackerel etc) for:
1) Omega 3 EPA & DHA for overall brain health
2) Vitamin D for a healthy nervous system and immune system
High quality fats (butter, coconut oil, olive oil,) for:
1) Cholesterol for the production of hormones, a healthy nervous system, the maintenance of healthy cell membrane and the production of Vitamin D
2) Butyric acid for the health of our colon cells
A wide variety of different coloured vegetables and some fruit for:
1) Vitamin C to support immune function. It is also needed to work alongside tryptophan to make the neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin and melatonin
2) Prebiotic fibres to feed the healthy bacteria in our gut
Fermented foods and Fermented dairy (sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir) for:
The growth of friendly bacteria in our digestive tract
Note: Speak to your practitioner about a good quality probiotic.
Healthy snacks such as nuts, cheese, and dark chocolate may also be incorporated. Nutrients and minerals work synergistically so it is important to avoid depending on nutrient-specific supplements to meet your needs. However, this is not to say that they are not extremely helpful to supplement an already good diet to manage certain health conditions.
In summary, a diet low in refined carbohydrate with the inclusion of quality protein sources and high-quality healthy fats may help in managing anxiety. (i.e.: whole-food, minimally processed diet)