Gut-Wrenching Anxiety


Ever “gone with your gut instinct” or had felt “gut-wrenching anxiety” when you’ve been nervous?  You may be getting information from your “second brain.”  The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is like a second brain in your gut.  That main role of the ENS is to control digestion.  Our guts consist of all of the organs that process, digest and eliminate food.  The ENS is the lining of that gut.  Jay Pasricha, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology says “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.”  Our brain can directly affect our stomachs and our stomachs can also affect our brain, meaning, this communication goes both ways.  For example, just the thought of food can cause our stomach to begin releasing acids for digestion.

This adjusts thinking on several levels, does our brain health affect our gut health or can our gut health affect our brain health?  Perhaps therapies that help our brain, can also help our gut health.  More specifically, altering the bacteria in our guts could affect our brain health.  Research shows that changes in the microbiome of our gut can cause symptoms that look like anxiety, depression and even Parkinson’s Disease (Mussell, et al., 2008).  Results suggest that patients presenting with GI problems should be screened for anxiety and depression.   Similar research shows that individuals with anxiety and depression often experience changes in the gut microbiome due to high levels of stress (Posserud et al., 2004). The gut microbiome are the bacteria, viruses and fungi that all live in the gut.  Stress can physically affect the physiology of the gut, in fact, stress and the hormones produced by stress, can influence the movement and contractions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Given the knowledge of these connections, it makes sense that we can experience GI symptoms from stress.

Research on the link between gut and brain health is still relatively new and there is still a lot to learn.  Scientists have learned about prebiotics and probiotics that can specifically change brain health.  Specifically, omega-3 fatty foods, foods that are fermented or high-fiber foods can be beneficial to brain health.  There are millions of nerves connecting the brain to the gut and this communication goes both ways.  It will be exciting to see what researchers come up with to combat mental illness using this gut-brain connection knowledge.



Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from

Mussell, M., Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., Williams, J. B. W., Herzog, W., & Löwe, B. (2008). Gastrointestinal symptoms in primary care: Prevalence and association with depression and anxiety. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64(6), 605-612.

Posserud I, Agerforz P, Ekman R, Björnsson ES, Abrahamsson H, Simrén M. Altered visceral perceptual and neuroendocrine response in patients with irritable bowel syndrome during mental stress. (2004). Gut. Aug 1;53(8):1102-8.

The Brain-Gut Connection. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from

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  1. Angelica Breanne Mckeithen

    This was a really great and unique post, I enjoyed reading! I suffer from chronic stomach pains, and I still haven’t been able to have an efficient diagnoses. But one thing I have realized, is that when things are stressful, my stomach pains become more prevalent than ever.

    It’s extremely fascinating that results have shown that changes in the microbiome of our gut can cause symptoms that look like anxiety and depression. I believe the first sign of anxiety is the feeling you get in your gut, and then it expels outward. As I’ve read further on the subject, I’ve found that many studies associate healthy gut function to a normal central nervous system function (Sudo, 2015). More and more research is coming out to support how the chemicals in our gut influence our mental states. When it comes to seeing how stress implements our bodies physically, it’s so important to understand how much the mind and body influence one another. I agree that it will be very exciting to see what researchers find the more this is studied. It’d be incredible if some mental illnesses could be treated by understanding the connection between the gut and the brain.


    Sudo, N. (2015). Brain–Gut Axis and Gut Microbiota: Possible Role of Gut Microbiota in Childhood Mental Health and Diseases. Journal of Pediatric Biochemistry,05(02), 077-080. doi:10.1055/s-0035-1564579

  2. Great post!
    The correlation between a “gut feeling” and our brains is an interesting concept. The idea that the two communicate and affect each other is important information. As you discussed, if we change our diets and consume more probiotics, we are not only changing our physical health, but potentially our brain health too. When it comes to mental health, studies explore and analyze the chemical imbalances in the brain, but what about a person’s gut health, is this affecting their mental health as well? This is a profound topic that could potentially help to change the lives of those suffering with depression and anxiety.

    Aside from medication, the term “self-care” has become a word used often in combating mental illness, but most see that term and think of reading a book or taking a walk. However, what if self-care went further than that and people became more self-conscious of what they were putting into their bodies. I wonder how many people suffering with mental illness would change their food choices and take the necessary supplements such as probiotics, if they knew it would help their brain health. This research in general is important as it may help individuals to go for their annual physicals and see a gastroenterologist to see if their digestive system is functioning to the best of its abilities.

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