Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions in the UK and is hugely underdiagnosed. It can be life limiting, if it is severe enough, it can exert huge control over someone’s day to day function. The good news is that the right nutrition can help.

The idea that food can influence our mental health seems to be a difficult concept for some.  Here, we take it further; we are looking at how your gut bacteria can affect anxiety. Gut bacteria influence anxiety. This might be a step too far for some. But you are reading this, so I figure that you are open to discovering the far-reaching effects of the bacteria in our guts. The good news is that science is on our side.

Recent studies on mice showed how changes in their gut bacteria made them less anxious and it lowered their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone which would be stimulated in response to feeling anxious. Consistently elevated cortisol is not a good thing. It is a sign that your body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode all the time.

Have there been similar findings in human studies? In another research project volunteers were given pre-biotics, a food for gut bacteria, for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks the volunteer’s response to negative stimuli was tested. Remarkably, after just three weeks the volunteers taking pre-biotics had changed the way they responded to negative stimuli. It didn’t provoke anxiety, they weren’t bothered by it. Like the mice, they also had lower cortisol levels than volunteers in the placebo arm. To see improvements in anxiety and cortisol levels in such a short space of time on pre-biotics is great news.

The scientists are cautious, obviously looking to replicate the study to validate its results. We are not cautious; we understand the importance of a well-balanced bowel flora for mental and physical health.

This information helps to explain why nutritionists often see a link between food intolerances and anxiety. If you have intolerance to a specific food, you won’t be digesting it properly. This leads to larger protein molecules entering the intestine and providing food for the non-beneficial gut flora (causing flatulence too, no doubt!). This helps the non-beneficial gut flora to flourish – crowding out the good guys! This influence on the bowel flora may go some way to explain how food intolerances can influence anxiety levels.

There are of course, other influences on anxiety. Including nutritional factors that affect our brain biochemistry, but that’s a whole other post. Research in the field of nutritional medicine and mental health is growing. I hope that, in the future, the field of psychiatry will pay attention to the influence of nutrition and the gut flora on mental health.