When you’re feeling anxious, your stomach may feel like it’s tied up in knots—but your gut may be even more related to your anxiety than you thought.
In fact, people with anxiety symptoms may find relief from using probiotic and non-probiotic supplements and foods to help regulate gut bacteria, according to a new review published in the journal General Psychiatry. More than half of the 21 studies reviewed showed that using these methods to regulate your gut’s microbiota—the fancy word for the trillions of microorganisms that live in your intestines and help your body’s immune system and metabolism function—improved anxiety symptoms.
Of the 14 studies that used probiotics to regulate gut microbiota, more than one-third were effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. Non-probiotic methods, like having people follow more “gut-friendly” diets like the low-FODMAP diet (more on this later), were found to be even more effective: Six of the seven (86%) studies that used non-probiotic methods appeared to lower anxiety.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Anxiety disorders, which include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more, are some of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, affecting more than one in five adults per year, according to Mental Health America.
Past research has suggested that gut microbiota can help regulate brain function thanks to what is dubbed the “gut-brain axis”—basically, the emotional and cognitive centers in your brain are directly linked to your intestines, so microorganisms in your intestines can impact that relationship to your mind. But this study from researchers at the Shanghai Mental Health Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine is the first to collect specific evidence to back up the claim that regulating these microorganisms may help treat mental health disorders—specifically, anxiety symptoms.
The authors note that this is an observational study and therefore can’t establish cause, but the overall quality of the 21 studies was quite high. More studies are needed, but the authors suggest it would be safe to consider regulating gut bacteria as a treatment for anxiety in addition to the use of psychiatric drugs and other traditional treatments.
Could a Low-FODMAP Diet Reduce Your Anxiety?
So we know that certain diet changes were found to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in the 21 studies—but what exactly did they do?
Many of the effective non-probiotic studies had the participants try a low-FODMAP diet, which is a diet often used in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive issues to help relieve their symptoms. “FODMAP” is an acronym for the short-chain carbohydrates that feed on naturally occurring bacteria in your large bowel: fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.
These carbs are difficult for your body to break down and absorb, so when the bacteria in your stomach feed on them, gas is left behind and it can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms.
If you want to eliminate these carbs and try out this method, here’s a handy list of foods to avoid on the low-FODMAP diet. Just make sure to speak to your doctor before making any big diet changes.
Things to Know About Probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria that are known to be healthy for your gut—in fact, they’re naturally found there (it sounds kind of weird, but they’re good for you!). They’re known to boost your immune system and help regulate other functions in your body, according to Harvard Health. To get more probiotics in their bodies, many people take them in supplement form or eat certain foods like yogurt that contain them.
In the studies described above that found probiotics helpful for anxiety, three different strains of probiotics were used: Lactobacillus, Streptococcus, and Bifidobacterium. So if you want to try to get some more probiotics in your diet, check your yogurt and supplement labels for those specific names. Again, make sure to check with your doctor before taking any new supplements.