The originator of the phrase “trust your gut” may have been onto something, after all. While we typically think of emotional states like anxiety, stress, and anger as originating exclusively from our minds or social environments, studies on humans and animals have indicated that they may also stem from a very unlikely source: The gut. Our guts are home to a large community of bacteria, known as the microbiome. The microbiome is responsible for synthesizing nutrients, but also for producing hormones that influence our nervous systems, and can even release neurotransmitters that communicate directly with our brain via the enteric nervous system (or “gut brain”).
Unfortunately, not all bacteria are created equal. Studies on humans and animals have indicated that certain “bad” bacteria in our gut are responsible for an increased cortisol/adrenal stress response, as well as inflammation, which damage our bodies over time and lead to feelings of chronic anxiety. On the other hand, certain “good” gut bacteria interact with the nervous system to lower this chronic stress response. This process occurs on a hormonal level, and is highly complex.
Many of us suffer from the effects of chronic stress, including gastrointestinal problems, inflammatory disease, anxiety, and mood problems. These problems may be partially mitigated by increasing the presence of “good” bacteria in our guts. Research also tends to show that a more diverse gut microbiome, with a greater variety of bacteria, is healthier for humans. Luckily, there are a number of ways that we can promote this process. One everyday method is by increasing our intake of whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. We can specifically increase consumption of known probiotic and anti-inflammatory foods, which help to promote the presence of “good” bacteria and fight bodily stress.
These foods include: yogurt, soft cheese (such as brie), dark chocolate, tomatoes, cherries, berries, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, garlic, kimchee, sauerkraut, pickles, nuts (such as almonds/walnuts), fatty fish (such as salmon), and kombucha tea. Mind-body approaches can also be used to help manage gastrointestinal symptoms in a top-down way, by returning equilibrium to our nervous systems and lowering inappropriate stress responses. Simple strategies include: deep breathing, restorative/gentle yoga, massage, and mindfulness meditation.
Whether you choose dark chocolate or massage, these choices can be a stepping stone toward increased mental and physical well-being, helping us to take control of our body’s stress responses and promote healing.
Kati Ann Leonberger, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist