Anxiety is no picnic. In fact, it can be a debilitating condition that drastically impacts one’s quality of life. Everyday activities, such as planning a healthy diet or even going out to eat at a restaurant, can be all but impossible for someone with anxiety.
Anxiety is a Major Problem Today
We hear about anxiety in social media posts or in news headlines pretty regularly. Is anxiety a major problem today? Here’s what the numbers say: 18.1% of adults in the U.S. alone have coped with an anxiety-related disorder, from PTSD to OCD to specific phobias. Full disclosure: I can include myself in that 18.1%, as I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder.
These numbers are staggering. Take a random group of ten people, and two of these people will be, in some way and in some form, coping with anxiety. The problem could be even bigger, however: many folks with anxiety don’t seek help at all, or end up with a mis-diagnosis.
When it Comes to Anxiety, Pills Alone Aren’t the Answer
What are we doing about it? In 2008, approximately 5.2% of US adults aged 18 to 80 years used benzodiazepines (such as Ativan and Xanax). The problem with this? The benzodiazepine class of drugs is highly-addictive, and can often be lethal (especially when combined with other medications or drugs that decrease respiration, such as opioids or alcohol). Although so many people end up using ‘benzos’ for years at a time, they are really meant for short-term treatment of acute anxiety in timeframes no longer than three months. Why? Long-term use can result in worsening of the symptoms they are supposed to treat, tolerance, cognitive decline, and other serious health issues.
Although benzodiazepines are often a go-to for anxiety sufferers, other medications are also prescribed with frequency. In fact, 1 in 6 Americans take mood-altering drugs every single day. And, one note: these statistics don’t include the people who resort to abusing alcohol and recreational drugs in an effort to self-medicate the symptoms of anxiety.
Of course, medication has a firm place when appropriately prescribed -- but with a problem on this scale and of this scope -- isn’t it time we look to our nutrition to help provide some anxiety relief?
Anxiety & The Mind-Gut Connection
You’ve probably heard the term ‘mind-gut connection’ thrown around here and there. In a nutshell, the mind-gut connection refers to how healthy guts are linked to improved mental states whereas unhealthy guts are linked to mental health issues.
So, how exactly does what’s going on in your gut impact what’s going on in your mind?
Here’s the theory: your guts are smart and contain the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is comprised of over 100 million nerve cells that stretch the entire length of your GI tract.
The ENS controls your digestion, such as: swallowing, releasing enzymes to break down food, and the flow of nutrient absorption. Basically, the enteric nervous system is in constant communication with your brain.
If something’s not right with your gut, the ENS clues your brain in to the problem. Unfortunately, it doesn’t directly say, ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem.’ Instead, it lets your brain know that something’s off more subtly, through mood changes and other mental health issues.
Whenever I see a big statement such as ‘what you eat impacts how you feel’, I always say, ‘show me the evidence’. So...let’s dive in.
Recent statistics are showing that folks who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and other related issues are at a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety over time.
Imbalances of bacteria in the gut have been linked to worsened symptoms of everything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia; increasing good bacteria through the use of probiotics has been shown to alleviate symptoms.
And, when it comes to schizophrenia (which, when untreated, is one of the most disabling psychiatric disorders from which a person can suffer), research is pointing doctors towards actively treating the mind-gut connection. For example: one nationally published study suggests that in addition to antipsychotic drugs, therapies to treat GI dysfunction should become a gold standard in treating schizophrenia.
Bottom Line? When it Comes to Conquering Anxiety, Go with Your Gut
Fermented foods are full of probiotics (aka gut-healthy bacteria)...so skip the probiotic supplements and look to whole and local foods that are mostly organic and minimally processed. Which foods can you add to your diet (in addition to working with your doctor’s plan of treatment)? Fermented foods such as Kefir, organic yogurts, kombucha, and miso are all excellent choices. Probiotic-rich food helps with anxiety, and so much more: check out a recent blog post we published for even more reasons to include gut-healthy foods in your diet.
With the right plan of attack, and the right nutrition, relief from anxiety can be achieved. So many today suffering from different anxiety disorders, and so much focus given to medication: it’s more than time to start looking at nutrition in addition to pharmaceutical options.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Ash, Journalist and Blog Strategist, Nutrition Fanatic
JoHannah Ash first discovered the transformative power of nutrition after struggling to shed post-baby weight: today, she is 100% committed to continuously learning about disease prevention, weight loss, and healthy living through the foods we eat. She spent a decade living in Burlington, Vermont, surrounded by pioneers in the 'local foods' and 'farm-to-table' movements -- and is proud to have been one of the first people to purchase (and wear) one of the now-famous 'Eat More Kale' shirts. When it comes to meal planning for her family, her philosophy can be summed up in three words: "Easy. Pure. Tasty."