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Anxiety is not all in your head. It’s actually in your gut


Posted by on November 18, 2014 / 13 Comments

Anxiety is not all in your head. It's actually in your gut.

If you’ve ever had anxiety or suffered from a panic attack, you know what a crazy, out-of-body experience it is. On the mild side, you may feel lightheaded or unable to catch your breath. On the severe side, you may feel like you’re dying or going insane. 

Either one, not so much fun, right?

The first time I had a panic attack.

I was in my mid-20’s, all dolled up, going to a dive bar with some girlfriends in Orange County, CA. There were four of us in the car and I was sitting in the backseat. One minute we were laughing and joking about the men we would meet (our future husbands, of course) and the next, well, I launched into the freakout zone. My pulse pounded like a deep, tribal drum, I became sticky sweaty, the car felt agonizingly small and I started doing this weird, silent gagging thing.

Definitely, not cute.

And not wanting to make a scene or draw attention to myself, I faced the window so my friends couldn’t see me…while silently praying we’d get there quickly.

Within minutes we arrived and I catapulted from the car. I sucked in fresh oxygen like someone gasping for air. And just as quickly as my body went haywire, it calmed back down. Then, I thought to myself, “where in the hell did that come from?!”

Knowing what I know now, that was a mild panic attack. And thankfully, I didn’t have many of them in my 20’s.

But then came the claustrophobia.

Out of nowhere, in my 30’s, I started getting claustrophobic in elevators and confined spaces. Again – “what the hell?!”

And let me tell you, it’s a strange feeling when you have a conversation with yourself that goes something like this:

“It’s just an elevator. You’ve been in an elevator a gazillion times. This is no different.”

“Just breathe, it will all be over soon. You will survive this.”

“Why are you freaking out? Slow your damn pulse already. Stop doing this!!!”

We talk to ourselves because we’re trying to use the brain in our head, the one that’s seemingly gone bonkers, to rationalize the situation. To will ourselves out of it. Basic mind-over-matter Jedi mind trick stuff. Yet Yoda has left us high and dry.

And that’s because anxiety is not all in our head.

It’s in a different brain – the one in our gut.

Our gut is home to over 100 trillion bacteria. And these bacteria, leveraging the neural network of the gut, quite literally, have a mind of their own. That’s why you’ll frequently hear the gut referred to as your “second brain.”

In addition to regulating your metabolism, digestion, learning and memory, these bacteria regulate your mood, social behavior, levels of happiness and anxiety. Essentially, all the important functions of the body!

So how do these little buggers do that? By producing hundreds of chemical neurotransmitters, including one you may have heard of before – serotonin.

Serotonin plays a key role in our central nervous system.

Quite simply, it’s a biggie. And studies have shown that those who are deficient in serotonin are more likely to be depressed and suffer from anxiety and panic attacks.

Now get this – over 95% of your body’s serotonin is produced by the bacteria that reside in your gut! So if you have a gut bacterial imbalance, you may not be receiving an appropriate amount of serotonin to regulate your physiological and mental systems.

Your anxiety, quite literally, starts in your gut!

So how do you know if your gut’s out of whack?

If you suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Irritable Bowel Disease, Celiac Disease (or any other autoimmune disease), and/or you have food sensitivities, allergies, memory issues, or depression (or other mental issues), you may have a microbial imbalance. 

Reading between the lines, if you’re not 100% well…your gut may be the sneaky culprit. 

When you’re born, your gut is sterile. But it’s quickly populated from the bacteria in your mother’s vaginal canal, or if you’re a cesarean baby, the environment around you. Throughout our lives, it’s then constantly changing based on the food we eat, our environment and our lifestyles (including stress and the medications we take).

Which begs the question…can you fix your gut?

Absolutely! Modern lifestyle might have done a number on your gut, but you can reverse that damage.

This includes healing your gut, improving your serotonin levels and getting your anxiety back under control. 

Here’s how:

Problem: You’re eating processed foods and sugar, which damage the lining of the gut.
Fix: Eat a wholesome, real food diet with lots of vegetables.

Problem: Years of poor diet, medications and environmental toxins altered your bacteria.
Fix: Eat more fermented foods to introduce good bacteria to your gut.

Problem: Chronic stress has damaged your gut to the same degree as toxic food.
Fix: Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.

You can conquer your anxiety. Just focus on simple tweaks that will heal your gut and improve your overall wellness. Baby steps will get you quite far. 

As for me, since healing my own gut, I’ve haven’t felt claustrophobic or had a panic attack in years. I also no longer get seasonal allergies (interesting side effect, eh?). And the cherry on top? My “foggy brain” has improved as well. The gut-brain axis is back in full working order! 


Have you ever had a panic attack? What did you did you do to overcome it? Share in the comments below!

  • Chara Armon

    SUCH an important topic, Lisa. This one deserves repeat attention.

    • Agree! Anxiety is definitely more pervasive than most realize…because out of fear, we tend to keep it under wraps. But the fix is within all of us. :) Thanks Chara!

  • Karen Bryan

    Very interesting! I have always tried to talk myself out of being so
    nervous that I can’t talk, while my stomach churns nosily away. I never
    actually associated the problem with my gut even though that was, in
    hindsight, the most active reaction to being nervous or anxious.

    • Exactly! That’s why we also tend to say things like “I have a gut feeling…” Our gut is core to our health, nervous system, and so much more. :)

  • Yes, this is huge! I find the most benefit from making sure my gut is healthy and incorporating breathing and relaxation into my day on a daily basis. Alternative nostril breathing works like a charm for me.

    • Yes, alternative nostril breathing can be very calming! Thanks Lauren. :)

  • Great post Lisa! Been reading so much about this in my studies, and I love how you are getting the message out to the masses.

    • Thanks Karin! The gut-brain axis is one of the most interesting (and important!) aspects of our health. I totally geek out on this stuff! ;)

  • Bree

    Love this post Lisa! Really informative and engaging, thanks!

  • Pingback: What to Do If You Get Glutened()

  • Andrea Jaros Huot

    I needed to see and read this! Thank you for this educational post. What kind of fermented foods do you advise? I have gluten sensitivities and my stomach swells no matter what I eat, really…. It’s just worse with high levels of gluten.

    • You’re welcome Andrea! I personally love sauerkraut and homemade yogurt (which I sometimes make with coconut milk). I also take a probiotic. Like you, I have a sensitive stomach (as a celiac), but after completely revamping my diet the improvements were extraordinary. Best wishes! x

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