The symptoms of anxiety are awful. While everyone experiences anxiety a little differently, for most people it’s like a sense of dread that never fully goes away, but looms over you like a cold, wet blanket. For you, there may be periodic spikes in panic or fear that can come on seemingly out of nowhere, during an otherwise uneventful, happy day. Perhaps you are lying awake at night and thinking and replaying the same stressful thoughts. It’s like someone hit your rewind button and it got stuck.
No matter how you experience this, if you suffer with general anxiety you may expect it will become worse with time without treatment or prevention. And prevention is what I’ll help you with today. In a nutshell: gut bugs impact your brain.
You can soon stop fretting about relationships, money, family issues or job-related stress. I hope that what I tell you today will allow you to compartmentalize the intrusive thoughts that occupy your brain.
Today is the day to do something about it.
As a pharmacist, you might assume I’m planning to suggest a litany of tranquilizers and sedatives, but I’m not. That is the worst thing you could do and I rarely recommend drug treatment for this. In fact, I’m not a big fan of benzodiazepines in general… you can READ what I’ve written about them in my article Benzodiazepine Dangers and Lies.
Eat More Bacteria, the Good Kind
What I am suggesting may surprise you—that probiotics, those friendly little bacteria that populate your digestive tract and make up what is known as your microbiome, impact your brain. It’s weird to think about it though: what on Earth does your digestive flora have to do with your mental and emotional state? (I can almost see you shaking your head, thinking this girl is crazy, like cra-zeee!) Many of you reading this have been brainwashed to believe that drugs are the only answer… and that something so simple and cheap couldn’t possibly help!
Some of you are inflicting terror upon yourself with your food choices and few practitioners are willing to tell you this. We health bloggers want to be liked, we want to be shared and we want wonderful comments, so we (as a group) generally don’t say things that could be perceived as inflammatory. But I’m willing to in the name of tough love. Here goes: If you eat crap and annihilate your friendly microflora, then opportunistic bacteria take over. Your gut becomes overpopulated with the UNfriendly organisms that seek to destroy you. If you have a healthy microbiome, your mind will think more clearly and you’ll be happier, calmer and probably less aggressive. If your gut is populated with disgusting, pathogenic worms, yeast, fungi, bacteria or prions, you’ll feel tired, cranky and anxious.
Blasphemous, isn’t it, to say such a thing when I should be advocating more Prozac and Klonopin, eh?! Bad pharmacist! I just smacked myself for you. (Not really.)
Before I take off my white lab coat, I want to tell you about all the medications that COULD actually cause anxious or unstable thoughts, in an otherwise calm person. See if you take any of these:
Medications that May Spark Anxiety
- Asthma inhalers and pills- Albuterol, salmeterol, theophylline and formoterol
- Antihypertensives- Methyldopa and amlodipine
- Estrogen-containing medications/patches/shots- Birth control pills, HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and breast cancer medications
- Antibiotics- through their depletion of gut microflora, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is reduced
- Stimulants to treat ADHD or fatigue- Amphetamines, Benzedrine, Dexedrine, and Ritalin, Concerta, and others; over-the-counter (OTC) stimulants such as No-Doz, Vivarin and cough medications that contain decongestants like pseudoephedrine.
- Steroids- Dexamethason, Prednisone, Hydrocortisone
- Thyroid Medications- Desiccated or other, mostly in excess dosages (versus therapeutic doses which should not cause anxiety)
- SSRI antidepressants-Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft to name a few
- Anti-seizure- Phenytoin
- Anti-Parkinson’s- Levodopa
- Decongestants- Pseudoephedrine, found in OTC allergy pills
The Role of Probiotics
Your natural gut flora do so many vital things for your body, yet they never get any credit. Among the most important, your gut bacteria is in charge of regulating your immune system. People with the worst allergies often have the worst diets, or they are eating something (such as sugar) that interferes with immune function, and instead of realizing this, they often live on allergy pills. Since the majority of immune function happens in the gut, paying attention to this area may improve allergies by retraining your immune cells to notice the difference between harmful and non-harmful things that you are exposed to, like pollens.
In this way, restoring your microbiome by taking healthy probiotics may support healthy immune function. Gut bacteria (the good kind) helps your immune cells differentiate between “self” (like your thyroid gland) and “nonself” particles (from say, tuna fish) so that your immune cells don’t overreact to your own body. If you can’t tell self from nonself, your body just goes on a destruction spree and this is known as an autoimmune attack. When the attack is aimed at your nerves, it’s called multiple sclerosis, when it’s aimed at your joints and synovial fluid, it’s called rheumatoid arthritis, when it’s aimed at your thyroid it’s called Graves’ or Hashimoto’s disease, and so on.
Gut bacteria also improves the process of elimination and is thought to support gut transit. When your bowels function properly, you get fewer headaches. In my book, Headache Free, I said in regard to poisons in your bloodstream, “If it backs up in your blood, it backs up in your head.” So bowel function is huge when it comes to brain health, especially if you suffer from migraines and cluster headaches.
Your intestines activate thyroid hormone, in fact about 20% of your active T3 thyroid hormone is activated in the gut, so again, improving your gut flora plays a role with energy, metabolism and skin/hair health.
Do Probiotics Work like Benzodiazepines?
Well, sort of. Benzodiazepine drugs work by improving your body’s use of your GABA, a calming hormone that is high when you sleep. GABA deficiencies are linked with anxiety, stress, insomnia and many diseases. Benzodiazepines don’t make more GABA, they just allow your own GABA to work a tad longer. Probiotics don’t make better use of your GABA, rather they actually create some! Bravo, probiotics! And the bonus is they’re not addictive like benzos are.
If probiotics can help you manufacture various neurotransmitters including GABA and serotonin, then you’re going to feel better over time. Both of these neurotransmitters play a role in anxiety and depression. Your gut bugs make more neurotransmitters than any drug can ever make. This is another reason NOT to annihilate them with soda pop and junk food. When you destroy them, you feel depressed and anxious. Healthy gut bacteria boosts the role of GABA, a restraining chemical that downplays the buzzing of excitable neurons.
Probiotics and Stress Reactions
Gut flora also influences the brain by affecting the stress response via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which plays a role in the making of and cycles of cortisol and other stress-related hormones. When the cyclical rising and falling of cortisol is disrupted, it plays a role in your mood and cognitive function, so getting this back on track supports mental and emotional health.
With high cortisol, you might look like you have Hashimoto’s actually, because the symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, a puffy face, irregular menses, fertility problems and muscle aches and pain. Imagine getting diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) or bipolar disease when it’s just poor probiotic status! Happens to thousands of you every day.
How many of you have been referred to a psychiatrist for a psyche eval or counseling when maybe it was just an imbalanced gut that needed detoxification and probiotic restoration?
Gut Microbiome and Science
Healthy microflora and probiotics are considered anti-inflammatory, and chronic inflammation is known to be one of the roots of depression and other mood disorders.
Strong evidence for the gut-brain axis, as it’s called, comes from the University College Cork. Researchers fed mice with a probiotic strain called Lactobacillus rhamnosus, found in dairy and also probiotic supplements. The L. rhamnosus changed the levels of signalling chemicals in the animals’ brains, and was able to lower all behaviors associated with depression, stress and anxiety.
Lactobacillus increased the numbers of GABA receptors in parts of the brain associated with learning tasks, remembering things and emotional stability. Your GABA hormone is involved in fear and mood. For example, animals who express symptoms of depression have been shown to have lower levels of GABA receptors in the frontal cortex of their brain.
Basically the mice who regularly consumed food laced with the Lactobacillus strain, spent more time in an area of a maze that was wide-open and exposed (this is apparently a commonly accepted test for anxiety levels with mice). The mice who did not eat the probiotic-enriched meals spent more time hiding and would just drift off motionlessly when plopped into water, thus the assumption of depression. Levels of cortisol and other stress markers were measured as well. So this is how the researchers determined that probiotics impact mood and fear levels.
The body of research supporting the ability of probiotics to lessen anxiety is already fairly robust and continuing to grow, even on human subjects. For instance, a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that healthy human subjects who took a probiotic containing Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175 for 30 days experienced less depression, anger, and anxiety. As an added bonus, they also enjoyed increased problem solving!
Anxiety is easy to target. It’s not just healthy folks who have benefited—a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study (considered to be the gold standard of study design) randomized 39 patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to either receive a probiotic containing 24 billion colony-forming units Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota or a placebo for two months. The patients who took the probiotic experienced a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms.
Even the Journal of the American Medical Association, a well-respected yet very traditional medical journal, is supportive of the link between probiotic use and lessened sensations of anxiety. It published a thoughtful review of the literature on the impact of probiotics on mental health in 2015.
If you are struggling with anxious thoughts or fear, consider that the real thing to be fearful of might be what you’re eating. Junk food, processed foods, refined sugars, certain medications and low-quality supplements may impact your gut, and then your gut-to-brain connection is hampered. This is one very likely cause for unstable moods and anxiety. Please don’t underestimate how much our bowels exert an influence on our behavior and emotional well-being! An accumulating body of evidence that shows how gut bacteria improve mood. Unfortunately, it’s much easier for people to pop mood-enhancing pills than repair the gut and avoid foods and beverages that so easily destroy it. I’m not an ogre, I’m not advocating wheat germ and water all day long, I’m just saying avoid the junk! It’s destroying your mood, your sleep and your life.
If you truly want to feel more happy, less anxious and have a clear mind and memory, consider the following:
1. Some type of detoxification whether it is a juice or water fast, or greens drink or other.
2. Some kind of gut-repair supplements. Avoid very high doses of supplements that contain glutamine because that can form glutamate and then you’re in trouble, as it’s highly anxiety-producing. Be careful with glutamine even though it’s pitched for gut health.
3. Look inside your medicine cabinet. See if there are medications in there from my list above. Maybe you can talk to your doctor about switching to another type of medicine that is less likely to produce anxiety.
4. Avoid junk food, refined white sugar and anything that triggers you. For some it is caffeine whereas for others, it’s gluten or dairy or MSG, or tartrazine or aspartame, or other artificial sweeteners. (That last category is a big one.)
5. Look at home, look at your relationships, your job and your friends. Do any of these areas cause gloom and stress? If there is a hardship anywhere or with anyone in your life, it can trickle into your entire day and cause unnatural anxiety. In this case, you have to do the hard work and tidy up your life, and the people you allow in it.
6. After detoxification and gut repair strategies, you can consider probiotics, but only high quality ones.
Supplements like this or foods rich in probiotic strains (yogurt, for example) is so much safer IMHO and I just love it when something simple, natural, and even potentially delicious can ease troubling symptoms.
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.