Anxiety can be caused by any number of things, but one area I’m really interested in currently is mental health, and specifically anxiety. Many people suffer from anxiety in one form or another, but increasingly we’re realising the link between anxiety and digestion.
We’ve known for a while that there is a strong link between the brain and the gut, called the Gut – Brain – Axis (GBA). The GBA is the link between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it’s heavily influenced by the type and diversity of microbiota (bacteria) in our gut. Whilst we’re still learning about this, we do know that anxiety can be caused by digestion, and vice versa.
The brain and gut contain a hormone called serotonin, a mood regulating hormone which plays a key part in mental health. It’s believed that as much as 90% of the serotonin in our bodies resides in the gut, and the rest in the brain. This might explain why eating can be a comfort, as it can affect serotonin levels in our gut. A lack of serotonin is thought to be a key contributor to depression, so what we eat is not only important, but also what else we do to boost our serotonin levels. Exercise, practising gratitude and what we call ‘heartfulness’ – doing things you love and helping other people.
When we are digesting food, we want to be parasympathetic dominant, which means the body is in rest and digest mode. Parasympathetic dominance is one branch of the autonomic nervous system (the other being sympathetic – fight, flight and freeze). When we’re parasympathetic dominant, our bodies can fully digest food because we’re relaxed. If you eat whilst stressed or in a hurry, you are sympathetic dominant; this means your blood pressure and heart rate might be elevated, and because the body is on high alert, blood is diverted away from the stomach to the major muscle groups and the digestive functions are not prioritised. This is why it’s so important to be relaxed and unhurried whilst eating.
Poor digestion can result in bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation, all of which can affect our mental health and anxiety levels. This is mainly due to bacteria, although we are still learning about this. Some of these symptoms such as gas can be anxiety-inducing as side effects include chest pain and shortness of breath.
We do know that gut bacteria have a profound influence on depression, mental health and even autism, as well as physical conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I drink a small glass of goat milk kefir every day for digestive issues (gas mainly and a persistent cough) and have noticed a huge difference in my digestive health.
Being stressed can alter your gut microbiota, which in turn can affect anxiety levels, so managing stress is really key for controlling anxiety. Meditation, gratitude journaling and heartfulness are all very powerful ways of managing stress, but also give thought to the principle of doing less – so much of our lives are caught up in doing but how much of that is giving you pleasure?
Digestion does affect anxiety, but so do other aspects of our health. Think about your health holistically; concentrate on sleep, mental health, energy, body composition and fitness, as well as digestion. They’re all interlinked, as I hope I’ve proven in this short article. If you need help understanding more about the Six Signals®, check out our website to find out more about each signal.
If you’re reading this, you’re are probably in a reasonably senior position, running your own business or have a busy life running the home and juggling other responsibilities. Either way, you’re busy. The convergent pressures of work and family life have probably meant that the time you did have to spend on health and fitness has disappeared. Why not talk to us and see how we can help.
Leanne Spencer is an entrepreneur, coach, TEDx Speaker, author of Remove the Guesswork, and founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. Bodyshot is a health and fitness consultancy that helps busy professionals get more energy by removing the guesswork around their health, fitness and nutrition. Visit www.bodyshotperformance.com or email [email protected] to register your interest in our services and connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.