Following up on last week’s article about how disrupted gut bacteria affects our mood, we are going to discuss the role of stress in our gut function and what to do about it.  As we discussed in our last few articles, the gut and the brain are actually physically connected by the vagus nerve which runs from the gut to the brain stem.  The gut is often called the second brain because of the intimate communication and connection between the two.  The foods that we eat affect the function of the brain as well as emotions affect the function of the gut.

Anxiety.  Everyone has experienced it at one point in their lives.  A large part of the time, anxiety is brought on by a situation and is consequently transient.  As with other moods, anxiety can come and go based on the situations we are faced with.   What most people think though is that stress is “in our heads” when in actuality, it isn’t always.  Transient stress, brought on by life situations is something that most healthy bodies can bounce back from.  The “fight or flight” cortisol response is a normal response to stress, and a healthy body should have no trouble rebounding.  BUT…..when stress becomes something that is more ongoing, the gut actually becomes affected on a chemical level, which in turn affects the brain and can cause other consequences.

When our bodies are exposed to stress on a more ongoing basis (chronic stress), it actually begins to break down the gut microbiome.  Studies have found that the gut bacteria of those who have experienced ongoing stress changes in diversity, number, and composition.  That means that chronic stress can cause the number of “good bacteria” to decrease, the number of overall bacteria to decrease, and the number of “bad bacteria” to take over.  Because our bodies don’t know the difference between good stress and bad stress (wedding v/s chronic negative life event), the response is the same.  No matter what the source of the “stress,” the resulting bacterial changes are the same.

Because our gut bacteria controls our immune system, this phenomenon opens us up to a myriad of illnesses, diseases, and even cancer, so it is vitally important to be aware of and manage.

  1. Stress management (psychological) – While we often cannot control what happens to us, we can always control the way in which we respond to it.  Because it is our response to stress that breaks down the gut, it is important that we manage our perceptions and reactions.
    • Seek the counsel of a friend, family member, or counselor in times of stress.  Talking through the situation does not change the situation, but it can give you a different perspective to help you manage your response to it.
    • Spend time in prayer or meditation.  Allowing yourself time to take a mental break from the situation at hand can help with your perception of the stress inducing situation as well as the way you respond to it.
  2. Stress management (physiological) – Stress/anxiety has a physiological component that is important to address. There are several natural means by which to calm your body’s adrenal response to stress.
    • Lavender or Serenity by Doterra are fantastic essential oils to decrease the body’s physiological response to stress.  Diffuse as well as put on parts of your body where you can smell them (back of neck, chest, wrists)
    • CALM that we have mentioned in previous articles is great for giving the body a healthy dose of magnesium which helps to calm the body and mind.
    • Epsom salt baths (with or without lavender) before bed provide transdermal magnesium which goes directly into the bloodstream.  Make sure to stay in the bath for at least 20 minutes.
    • L-theanine is also a great supplement to take for anxiety.  Consult your physician for interactions with any medications that you might already be taking.
  3. Watch your food – This one that you might find hardest to understand, but anxiety can actually be a reaction to food!  Food can cause all kinds of physiological reactions varying from migraines to sleeplessness to hot flashes and anxiety.  I have seen many reactions to food that I never would have believed if I had not seen them myself.  Cleaning up your diet is a good first step, but you may need to take it a step further.  Look at the biggest offenders first.  Wheat, sugar, and dairy (most commonly cheese) have been shown to trigger anxiety.  The reaction typically happens within 12 hours, often within 1 hour, so pay attention what your body is saying to you.  It is often helpful to remove a food group for a while and add it back to see how your body responds.  I have seen clients who thought they had an anxiety disorder actually have a reaction to foods they were eating and found (upon elimination of these foods) that they do not have an anxiety disorder at all.

Bottom line, there is a circular reaction between anxiety and the bacteria and our gut as well as the foods we eat and the anxiety we feel.  Stay closely in touch with your body.  The gut and the brain are intimately connected.

Heart with Leaf


  • Take a minute to assess how your body is feeling.  Is anxiety "normal" for you?  Do you get sick often?  Do you feel more/less anxious after eating certain foods?  Read through the information above to see if there is anything you could be doing to help.  Medication is helpful, but it does not address the root cause.  There is always a root cause.