Anxiety is a big problem among IBS sufferers.
Before IBS there was likely a proclivity towards anxiety but after IBS anxiety levels seem to go through the roof.
The cause of anxiety is often both physical as well as psychological. In other words it’s a mind body problem. This is why it must be address both through the body and the mind to find relief.
In this blog post I want to address the physical roots of anxiety. Next week we’ll cover psychology.
Anxiety, as you may suspect, involves the nervous system. But it can be caused by many different things, such as gut infections, adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues, food allergies, bacterial imbalance/overgrowth or trapped trauma.
There’s a nerve in the body that governs this response, sending distressed signals from the body to the brain. It is called the vagus nerve. It is what connects body and mind. But sometimes this communication channel gets weak and glitchy and anxiety and depression can result.
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body with many important functions. It connects the brain to the major organs and digestive tract as the major route of communication. Despite being a part of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) it also governs the fight or flight response in the body, sending messages from brain to body that there’s a possible threat.
But the vagus also sends messages from the gut to the brain. That’s how a gut issue can cause anxious thoughts and feelings.
The vagus is what controls the mind body relationship. The constant communication it sends back and forth affects how the body functions.
One of the many functions of the vagal nerve is to facilitate social connection by producing bonding hormones. It also helps people get into flow states, when brainwaves are highly focused and alert but relaxed. Like a meditative state.
The gut has just as much influence on the brain as the brain has on the gut.
The nervous system of the gut is called the enteric nervous system, and is commonly called the second brain because it has enough neurons to run digestion even if severed from the brain.
Even though the gut is generally self sustaining it is always checking in with the brain to ensure that everything is functioning optimally for survival and we are safe.
One of the way the gut influences the brain is when we eat fat or sugar, the enteric nervous system manufactures a feel good neurotransmitter called dopamine. It sends this feel good message to the brain so it seeks out even more fat and sugar.
Gut microbes are also involved. About 50 percent of dopamine and 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut by beneficial bacteria.
These two neurotransmitters effect mood, happiness and ability to feel pleasure. These bacterial microbes can also greatly influence your cravings and eating behavior by sending signals through the vagus nerve to the brain.
Your gut is responsible for manufacturing the chemistry that makes you feel happy, peaceful and secure. When you don’t make enough feel good chemistry because of bacterial imbalance, infection of inflammation, you tend to feel negative, depressed and fearful.
Probiotic therapies or fecal transplants can alter your bacterial biome so there’s much fewer bugs asking for fatty and sugary foods and more making happy chemicals.
An imbalanced gut microbiome can cause anxiety, depression and unhealthy cravings. Gut infections or inflammation effects the bacterial balance in your gut. As do the foods you eat and your external stress levels.
Before you start popping probiotics, know that some strains can make you feel worse, especially if you have bacterial overgrowth. The safest brand of probiotic supplements, especially for people with SIBO, is Prescript-Assist Probiotics
Even if your bacterial balance is good, the tone of your vagal nerve is another important factor. If the communication channel is blocked or slow, the messages are not properly transmitted.
Vagal nerve research is a promising field of research in the world of healing. A well functioning vagal nerve can help with conditions like leaky gut, migraines, OCD and anxiety disorders, memory and mood disorders, obesity and fibromyalgia.
Working with vagal tone and bacterial balance is one of the most promising ways to mend the gut and heal the mood issues that come with it.
Poor vagal function (also called low vagal tone) can also cause issues like fatigue, food sensitivities, brain fog and motility issues.
There are a few ways to stimulate vagal function, thus helping better connect body and mind. Doing so may even balance hormones and stabilize blood sugar balance.
Stimulating the vagal nerve is particularly useful for people with SIBO because it helps with the migrating motor complex, the brushing motion of your digestive tract that keeps everything moving downward.
Here are some tips to stimulate and increase vagal tone. Choose one or two that seem appealing to start with and do it regularly. In other words don’t over do it by taking on too much, you over achiever types!
- The vagus nerve is stimulated by cold. Cold showers or dipping your face in cold water is a good way to stimulate the vagus nerve. You can also do something that’s good for lymph flow by alternating between hot and cold water in the shower.
- Singing or chanting, especially if you do it quite loudly, is good for your vagal tone. Singing in unison also activates a flow state and your “rest and digest” nervous system. Yoga classes with call and response singing and chanting is good for vagal tone.
- Meditation stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Laughter and prayer stimulate it.
- Probiotics stimulate your vagus nerve. My favorite brand is Prescript-Assist.
- Foot massages can stimulate vagal function.
- Gargling is great for stimulating vagal tone.
- Making yourself gag is unpleasant but works wonders for vagal tone. You can use a tongue depressor to do it.
- Tai chi increases vagal tone by increasing heart rate variability.
- Traditional acupuncture points, particularly those in the ear, increase vagal tone.
- Coffee enemas increase vagal tone. They also have other benefits like detoxifying and removing metals from the liver.
These supportive exercises will improve vagal function but are obviously not the whole story.
If you have an infection, vagal tone will not fix it. Getting tested for infections, eating an anti- inflammatory diet and taking the right supplements are also part of the puzzle.
And of course working on mental stress is also important, but I will write about that piece next week.
I just want you to know that anxiety can very physical so don’t focus all your attention on the mind. Doing work on the body can also bring relief.
Calming your anxiety will not only improve your life but increase your chance and speed of recovery. And you”l find that when the anxiety quiets down you’ll be left with more clarity, intuition and stability. Much better than constantly drowning in your own panic and fear.
Angela Privin is proof that IBS is NOT an incurable disease or a disease at all. IBS is a body out of balance. It’s an invitation for change. After solving her own IBS mystery more than a decade ago Angela trained as a health coach to help others.
Angela uses both science and intuition to help people figure out what’s out of balance in their body. She works with lab tests, dietary changes, supplementation and nervous system rebalancing. Get help rebalancing your digestive system and solving your IBS mystery here.