That Anxious Gut feeling, Reduce Anxiety from the Inside Out!
You are about to serve dinner and you can feel the butterflies in your stomach. Once again your child is refusing to eat what you have prepared. Your tummy is tied into a knot. You can see your child is also super anxious as they fidget and look away when you serve food.
It is also 2020, covid-19 has hit the world and perhaps your anxiety level is through the roof. You feel that unease in your tummy, it is switching your appetite off.
Suddenly, it all makes sense, this link between our gut and our brain, must really exist. Why do we even feel like this? Scientists call our gut “the second brain”, or our enteric nervous system. There are 100 million nerve cells lining your GI tract, so of course it is super reactive!
There are many ways to reduce anxiety that focus on using our capacity to help ourselves through cognitive therapy, meditation and relaxation. There are also medications that seek to tranquilize the brain. Remember your GP is always a good first port of call. Recently I wrote the peas that freaked the kids, for Kiddipedia and gave tips on reducing anxiety at dinner. Little did I know that covid-19 was going to add mores stresses on so many families. Still…
In this post I wanted to look at the ongoing research between the health of our guts and anxiety. It turns out that the state of our gut flora (microbiota) has been associated with anxiety (please note an association is not causation).
Interestingly a recent review of a many studies found it beneficial to regulate our intestinal microbiota to reduce anxiety. Even if more studies are needed to clarify this review’s conclusion, it is only natural to wonder if we could help ourselves by looking after our gut flora!
The review looked at two kinds of interventions (probiotic and non-probiotic interventions) to regulate intestinal microbiota. They found that prebiotic interventions were more effective than probiotic interventions.
Where do you find prebiotics?
Prebiotics are types of fibre that nourish the beneficial bacteria present in the gut. According to Monash University, prebiotics are present in a variety of food including:
- Vegetables: Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage
- Fruit: Custard apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, rambutan, grapefruit, pomegranate, and dried fruit such as dates, figs
- Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
- Bread and cereals: Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats
- Nuts and seeds: Cashews, pistachio nuts.
Do you use any of those in our cooking? Researchers at Monash tell us that prebiotics are best consumed as part of a balanced diet. It is fairly simple to include those foods in our everyday meals. Having said that some fussy eating children, particularly those on the spectrum have limited dietary repertoires and may benefit from supplementation.
What about probiotics ?
A probiotic is a live microorganism that, when delivered in adequate quantities, confers a health benefit on the host. To be called a probiotic, scientific evidence for the benefit has to be documented. Probiotics can be purchased over the counter at the chemist.
Among the many strains of probiotics, Lactobacillus (L.) rhamnosus significantly reduced anxiety-like behavior in rodent studies. Probiotics particularly helped rodents exposed to stressful conditions or ones that had intestinal inflammation. The results are still inconclusive in humans, at this stage. However, it is worth keeping an eye on the science as it evolves.
Eating a varied diet
Eating a varied diet is the best way to improve our gut flora using prebiotic rich foods (as per the list above) and fermented foods (they contain live bacteria, which action mimics that of probiotics). Fermented foods are very safe and have been consumed by humans for a very, very long time. At the grocery store, you will find yoghurt, kefir, some cheeses, and other foods that “contain live cultures” – it says so on the label, so check, if you are unsure. You can also make or buy fresh kimchi and fresh sauerkraut. Please note, fermented foods that have been pasteurised, heated or cooked, such as tempeh, soy sauce, sourdough bread, and chocolate, do not contain live cultures. Children who are extreme fussy eaters may struggle to eat those foods and it may be important to look at strategies to increase intake.
More research is needed
Of course more research is needed to valdidate the use of ‘treatments’ for our gut to improve our overall health and well-being, but it is fascinating how quickly the understanding of our microbiome has evolved (microbiome project (2008-2016). In this short time, we have learned a compromised gut flora is associated (no causation) with an array of conditions from auto-immune diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimer’s, obesity, autism, to anxiety and depression. Looking after our gut flora and that of your children makes sense. You can start today using some recipes using the search box above, typing “gut”.