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Anxiety, Depression and Gut Health

Updated: May 12

It’s National Mental Health Awareness Week this week, so it seemed appropriate that this blog will discuss the link between anxiety, depression and gut health.

Studies show that as many as half of those diagnosed with IBS, also suffer from psychological disorders including anxiety and depression. From my experience working with IBS sufferers, I believe the correlation is much greater than what these studies show. One of the questions I ask all of my clients is if they have ever been diagnosed with mental health conditions, and nearly every single person says yes. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding around how this impacts gut health. Many of those diagnosed with IBS have been led to believe that the condition is caused by their mental health, but more recent research is showing that the ‘gut-brain axis’ is actually a two way street, where the imbalances in your gut directly affects what’s happening in your brain, and vice versa.

What is the ‘gut-brain axis’?

The ‘gut-brain axis’ is the bidirectional link between the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) of the body. Both the ANS and ENS can impact mental health and IBS in different ways.

Enteric Nervous system (ENS)

The digestive system has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. It is sometimes referred to as the second brain but unlike the brain, Its main role is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination.

The ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with IBS. For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But studies show that it may also work the other way around. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation (caused by poor diet, eating habits, dysbiosis and bacterial overgrowths) in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes. There have even more recently been specific strains of bacteria found in our guts that have been found in higher levels in those with clinical depression. These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The autonomic nervous system has two branches -

the sympathetic nervous system: involved in the ‘