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


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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!

About the author

Lisa Bryan

Lisa is a bestselling cookbook author, recipe developer, and YouTuber (with over 2.5 million subscribers) living in sunny Southern California. She started Downshiftology in 2014, and is passionate about making healthy food with fresh, simple and seasonal ingredients.

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  1. This is such great information and I do know it to be true. Thank you for making it accessible in this crazy (not kind) world. Well in my case my family definitely doesn’t understand that I don’t want to be like this. I know that a good diet works. Things are so very expensive right now. An older gentleman an I ‘semi-seriously’ discussed buying our own Chicken. Eggs were so expensive at the local grocers. I talk to people just to make myself smile and possibly for them :)

  2. Hi Lisa, I also had anxiety attacks in the early 80’s. I got rid of them through walking outside and talking to myself.  I had a stressful job, 3 children, a husband and a mother, all living together.  Have not had any since, however I now have gastritis and gallstones. It’s a losing battle. My gallbladder is ok…it acts up now and then but the real culprit is my gastritis. I don’t eat acidic foods or no sugar. I hope your recipes will help. Thanks for being there. 
    Judy Marsh 

    1. Hi Judy- I’m so sorry to hear that! I will tell you that stress is a number one thing that will have negative effects on your body – so it really does all come from within! Once you start eating healthier and live a balanced lifestyle, you will see some positive changes hopefully :)

  3. I had my first panic attack on the underground train on my way to work in London. This happened a few years ago. A pharmacist in my home country Lithuania suggested to check if am lacking any minerals etc. Normally you can do an advanced blood test. I got a combination of natural minerals from Dr. Schuessler from the homeopathic pharmacy in London and was taking it for a few months. 7-8 hours daily sleep, drinking lots of water helped too! I also removed the stress from my daily life, I changed my high pressured job! A hormonal imbalance could be also a cause of feeling anxious. For that I started taking daily rhodiola rosea tea and agnus castus drops in my water once a day. Panic attacks are not fun, have been myself there and know how terible it feels. Happy they are gone, hopefully forever!

  4. I had PTSD and panic attacks for 14 years and EFT (Gary Craig Emotional Freedom Technique) is what helped me. I don’t have panic attacks for 13 years now. I believe that EFT can help tons, but I do notice that when I stress less, have a good night of sleep and eat healthier my life seems to be better. I still have some anxiety from time to time and for me, reading the scriptures and wholesome books help calm me down. I am in the process of learning more about your diet and applying it to my daily life. I am grateful that you are willing to share your story and wisdom with us. Thank tons. :-)

  5. I know this article is a bit old now and maybe the writer won’t notice this but I’d really like to thank them for this info. I’ve only realised recently in my life how frustrating anxiety issues can be, I’ve never had this and never thought would but here they were in 2019, I had no idea how to deal with it or ascertain the cause of it. But now I think I’m getting there, only thing that was constant with anxiety was my gut health. My stomach issues escalated in recent times, with the increase in medicines because of my septoplasty. Do you think increased antibiotics can cause this? I’m suspecting it is the root cause because I never have experienced anxiety and apprehensions this severe. I’m turning 21 this year and don’t want to live with this all my life or rely on medications by some psychiatrist. Hoping I find peace.

    1. Just in case Lisa isn’t able to see comments on older posts I thought I’d tell you that she’s on Instagram as well and can respond easier there. I’m sure she’d love to hear your resonse. Changing my diet to a paleo based diet has eliminated my anxiety. The times I indulge in dairy or gluten or huge culprit sugar I can almost instantly feel anxiety on the rise. The foods we feed our body definitely impacts our gut health which impacts our mental state which effects how the entire body will choose to function. 

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I definitely agree with your post. I experienced similar issues and realized it was in connection with my diet. I’ve been trying to eat a paleo lifestyle for several months and definitely see a marked difference! Thank you for your insight! I noticed sauerkraut is a fermented food that you suggest any thoughts on kimchi? Personally my favorite! Thank you! 

  7. Thanks. I had a hypothesis and you confirmed it. I was reading the GAPs book by Campbell but she never went into panic attacks but i just assumed. My problem is i go through one and when i calm down i feel like apart of me didnt come back. Basically like im still in the panic attack mind set. Maybe anxious of starting it again. Thats my only stress. Everything you explained is like for foggy brain. I dont know what that is but i have been apathetic and un motivated to things i once did and i cant concentrate to make myself snap out of it and study my bible or go hiking. It sucks

    1. I can definitely understand the stress that comes with panic attacks. If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend working with a functional medicine doctor who may be able to help get to the root of the problem. I wish you the best!

    2. I feel exactly like you just explained. I get so down on myself for not trusting God or having the mind of Christ. I mostly just have anxiety from the anxiety and it’s here all the time. I have totally changed my diet and hoping it works. I pray your body heals and you find peace. 

  8. This has really been very informative. I’d like to continue getting information about this. Going to begin trying your suggestions. Thanks.

  9. I have suffered from severe panic attacks in the past…and hadnt had them for quite some time, but when i stopped taking my probiotics i noticed them come back with a vengeance. Do you think that cutting out probiotics suddenly could have caused this?

    1. It would be hard to say if that caused it, but it could definitely have been a contributing factor as we know anxiety and the gut microbiome are so heavily intertwined. The best test would be to go back on your probiotics and see how you feel. :)

  10. Hi there thank you for your website,there is a new and very interesting book out on Gut health called the psychobiotic revolution have you heard of it?i hope to start a 12 week course on Symprove 
    It’s a probiotic drink that reboots and heals your gut I’m hoping that this will heal my gut and relieve me of some of my anxiety.Have you come across Symprove?thanks

  11. 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.

    1. 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

  12. 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.

    1. 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! ;)

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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. :)

    1. 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!