Gut Feelings - Part 2: Does Anxiety Start in The Gut?

Welcome back! Thanks for joining me in Gut Feelings Part 2. If you haven’t yet read Part 1, I recommend going back and reading it here!

Intestinal Permeability (Leaky Gut)

In Part 1, I began to delve into how leaky gut can contribute to leaky brain and mental health symptoms. Another thing to be considered when thinking about the integrity of the gut lining, is how this affects the absorption of critical nutrients. The same little micro-villi in the lining of our small intestine which can be damaged by proteins like gluten, are also the sites for absorption of some of the most vital mental health nutrients. Micro-villi are hair-like projections that line the gut in overwhelming numbers - they radically increase the surface area of the gut lining which is why you may hear comparisons of “if you lay out the human intestines end to end, it would equidistant to X number of football fields blah blah blah”. If you can imagine the micro-villi in the gut like blades of grass in a field, on those blades of grass are receptors that absorb things like essential fatty acids and vitamin B12. Now imagine sharp proteins come along (like gluten) and shave off the tips of those blades like a lawn mower. The ability of the gut to absorb these nutrients is going to be altered.

How does Vitamin B12 deficiency contribute to Anxiety?

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much anxiety is affecting you until the fog is lifted…

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much anxiety is affecting you until the fog is lifted…

Vitamin B12 is belongs to the B group vitamins and is water soluble. It’s mostly found in animal derived products (and there is some evidence that fresh mushrooms contain small amounts also). If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, this is a vitamin to be aware of for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it may already be a vitamin you are lacking in your typical daily diet. Secondly, if you have gut issues, coeliac disease, consume a lot of wheat or are on acid suppressing medications you may not be breaking down and absorbing B12 from the foods that you do eat. Vitamin B12 has to be cleaved away from the protein that it is bound to in food by hydrochloric acid in the stomach. After that, it is reliant on intrinsic factor production (released by stomach cells) and then has to be absorbed in the lower end of the small intestine. Three separate steps which all require specific physiological mechanisms to be working properly!

Vitamin B12 is super important because it is needed for the appropriate development and differentiation of blood cells. If B12 is deficient, when our red blood cells are made, they come out a bit wonky and out of shape. This affects their function which is namely to carry oxygen around the body, including to the brain! If the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, feelings of fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, confusion and depression can result. Resurrecting B12 levels in the body can be one of the easiest yet overlooked treatments for depression and anxiety. Other common symptoms of deficiency include: numbness and tingling, cold hands and feet, weakness, mouth ulcers, shortness of breath and dizziness. If you’re getting a blood test to check your levels, its important to see the active B12 levels as well as the stored levels.

How do Essential Fatty Acids protect against Anxiety and Depression?

Essential fatty acids are needed for the stability of the cell membrane. Of every, single, cell. Including the complex network that makes up the brain! The brain is made up of 60% fat so it has a high requirement. Essential fatty acids protect nerve cells and are vital for the transmission of electrical signals and neurotransmitters. They are also potent anti-inflammatory molecules when the body is able to use them properly. This means that essential fatty acids can be helpful if inflammation in the brain is contributing to anxiety, depression and other neuro-degenerative conditions.

There are other really important vitamins and minerals that when deficient, can exacerbate anxiety. These include minerals like zinc, iron, iodine and magnesium. All the B group vitamins and some of the amino acids are particularly important but are a topic for another day!

Anxiety and the Gut Microbiome

Aside from the integral role of nutrients and minerals, the composition of the gut microbiome can affect mood and anxiety. Some species of bacteria are able to produce neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin. GABA is the main inhibitory/relaxing neurotransmitter and is often out of balance in anxiety and even insomnia. Although we know that some species of gut microbiota are able to make GABA, there isn’t yet specific scientific evidence (that I have found) that this GABA is sent to the brain for use. Some indications that you need more GABA can be: slow sleep onset (insomnia), racing or repetitive thoughts, anxiety about leaving on electrical appliances or locking the door and generalized anxiety. To make more GABA the body needs ready access to magnesium, glutamine (an amino acid) and vitamin B6. Aside from the role of microbiota in neurotransmitter production, some bacteria produce a substance called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) which can contribute to systemic inflammation if it gets into the blood stream via a leaky gut. The balance of bacteria in the gut can be mapped through stool analysis which can give an insight into how gut health is affecting other areas of health.

Interested in learning more or need some help in untangling your own anxiety? Simply book an appointment for individualized support and natural treatment. There are options like herbal medicine that you can try in addition to counselling or talk-therapy. The information in this article is in no way intended to diagnose or treat - it is always recommended that you consult a qualified health professional if you have any concerns about your health.

Alexandra McPhee