If you’ve ever felt “butterflies in your stomach” or “gone with your gut”, you’re likely getting signals from an unexpected source hidden in the walls of your digestive system.
Scientists call this “second brain” the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it’s made up of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from your esophagus to your rectum, connected by a giant nerve called the vagus nerve.
How, exactly, does this “gut-brain axis” affect your mental health? What role, if any, do microbes in our gut play in how we feel when we’re stressed and anxious? Can you reduce your anxiety levels just by changing the way you eat? What are some proven strategies you can use for reducing anxiety, starting right now?
We’ll answer all those questions and more in this article.
The Role of the Enteric Nervous System (ENS)
The ENS controls digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination, according to Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology. Pasricha states:
The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.
The ENS may trigger emotional shifts experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain and stomach upset. Dr. Pasricha noted:
For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around.
This means that inflammation in your gut may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes.
But feelings like anger, anxiety, sadness, surprise—all of these (and others) can also be the cause of symptoms in the gut.
With that in mind, let’s explore some strategies proven by research to help you reduce inflammation in your gut, which can help you significantly reduce your stress and anxiety as a result.
What to Eat to Decrease Your Anxiety and Stress Levels
Food plays a vital role in helping to control anxiety and stress. Let’s look at what to eat and what not to eat if you want to reduce your anxiety.
What Not to Eat
- Sugar: A diet low in sugar can starve out undesirable bacteria in the gut, leading to a positive effect on the gut-brain axis. Also, anxiety is often associated with hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood sugar drops to an abnormally low level a few hours after a sugary meal or drink. Balancing blood sugar is crucial to keeping symptoms of anxiety at bay.
- Saturated Fat: Diets higher in saturated fat and added sugars have been associated with higher anxiety levels.
- Alcohol: Drinking booze is also associated with higher levels of anxiety. Moderation is key.
What to Eat
- Vegetables and Whole Grains: Studies have found that people who eat more vegetables and non-refined grains are less likely to suffer from anxiety.
- Unsaturated fats: A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that people who suffer from depression and anxiety consumed lower levels of healthy monounsaturated fats (from olive oil, fish, and nuts).
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods like sauerkraut have beneficial microbes that may play a role in stress, anxiety, and depression. Aim to add a serving or two of fermented vegetables to your diet each day.
Specific diets, such as a low-FODMAP diet (a diet low in carbs and sugars), eliminate certain foods that can produce gas and bloating in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) patients. But this diet is hard to adhere to and may not be healthy in the long run because you’re forced to eliminate so many beneficial foods.
Supplements That May Help Improve Your Mood and Decrease Feelings of Anxiety
By now, you know that a healthy diet is crucial for physical well-being. Researchers in recent years have also begun to study whether certain supplements can improve gastrointestinal health and your mood.
Here are some of the most promising ones:
Probiotics have been shown to help improve the overall balance of your gut flora, leading to a “broad healing effect” in multiple body systems.
Researchers have found that manipulating the gut microbiota with probiotics may help manage symptoms of mental disorders.
And a 2019 review study published in the journal General Psychiatry revealed that over half of the 21 clinical studies included in the review showed positive results in treating anxiety symptoms through regulation of intestinal microbiota.
The review looked at two kinds of interventions (probiotic and non-probiotic interventions). Both probiotic and non-probiotic (diet and exercise) interventions were found to be effective.
It’s important to note that multiple probiotic strains across varying studies were used and contributed to positive outcomes in improving gut-brain connectivity and, hence, anxiety. Diversity is key.
Magnesium has been shown in small studies to have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms. More research is needed but because of its other many benefits, we highly recommend magnesium as a front-line supplement for most adults.
While human-based research on CBD and anxiety is fairly limited at this point, there are several small studies that have been conducted:
- A 1993 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology followed four groups of 10 people. Groups were given either CBD, Valium, ipsapirone, or placebo. The results suggested that ipsapirone and CBD have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) properties in stressful situations.
- According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “CBD reduces anxiety in social anxiety disorder (SAD).”
- A 2015 review published in the journal Neurotherapeutics found that CBD may help improve the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
4. L-lysine and L-arginine
A double-blind, placebo controlled, randomized study showed that taking a combination of the amino acids L-lysine and L-arginine can help reduce mental stress and anxiety.
Kava is a plant extract made from Piper methysticum, a plant native to the western Pacific islands. There is evidence that suggests kava may be a useful way to treat mild anxiety.
How I Have Personally Reduced My Anxiety Dramatically
These are the strategies I have personally used that have been most impactful for reducing and controlling my stress and anxiety:
1. Find out if you have any food sensitivities, allergies, etc.
Research shows eating a diet high in certain foods (like sugar) is associated with higher anxiety levels. So how do you know what the “right” foods for you are?
My advice: avoid fad diets and one-size-fits-all approaches to nutrition. Different foods affect people different ways and I think we’re entering a very exciting new chapter of personalized nutrition.
To that end, I highly recommend getting a microbiome test from Viome and an allergy test at a physician’s office. These two tests will tell you exactly what foods to eat more of and which ones to avoid based on your unique gut bacteria.
2. Drink less (or no) alcohol.
Let the record show I still enjoy my glass or two of wine each night but my days of hard drinking are long gone, thankfully, and it has definitely made a difference in my quality of sleep.
You sleep much worse when you’re drunk, by the way, for those of you who still have friends who think they sleep better when they’re inebriated.
3. Give thanks daily.
Expressing gratitude is one of the easiest ways to feel better. It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re writing down things you’re grateful for. It’ll help shift your thoughts away from what’s not going well for you now so you can focus more on what is.
4. Exercise daily.
Exercise is a “keystone habit,” which means it leads to other healthy habits. When I feel stressed and anxious, working out always helps me feel better (I’m partial to strength training and playing basketball).
It’s no secret that taking care of your body is one of the best ways to quell anxiety and feel better about yourself.
5. Learn how to breathe better.
Your brain may control your body, but the body can also control the brain. Deep breathing is a powerful tool that can be used to shift your brain-state and the stress response quickly.
Research shows deep breathing can help lower cortisol, a stress hormone your body produces when you’re anxious. It can even reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. There are many different deep breathing techniques you can.
To learn some tools and techniques we recommend for using your breath as a weapon to stop anxiety in its tracks, check out our article How to Breathe Better.
6. Spend time each day creating.
What’s your creative outlet? I love cooking, playing guitar, writing, and gardening. Doing these things makes me happy because I get to create, learn, and improve every single day.
I recommend scheduling time every day (even 5-10 minutes!) to work on something creative. Doing this every day significantly reduced my anxiety.
Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.
–Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH
7. Make sleep a priority.
If you’re sleep-deprived, you are likely exacerbating your anxiety. Make sleep a priority.
See this guide for details on how to do it: How to Sleep Better.
8. Go outside.
9. Spend time with family and friends.
There’s no better way to feel better, in my humble opinion, than spending quality time with family and friends and bringing your full attention to being with them. That’s the real “secret sauce” to kicking your anxiety to the curb (at least temporarily).
A proactive approach focused on diet, supplements like probiotics, and breathwork may be a good place to start in controlling anxiety. But you should always consult a healthcare professional if you’re dealing with chronic anxiety or depression.