You may think that feelings of anxiety—excessive worrying… irritability…jitteriness…clammy hands…upset stomach…panic attacks—start in your brain. But you’d be wrong. The truth is that 80% of emotion-related signals begin in the gut and then are sent to the brain. Your ability to know “in your gut” whether something is good or bad actually is the same gut/brain connection that is at the root of many of our anxious moments. Here’s how it works…

The Gut Controls Our Brain and Our Body

You may think that the brain is the master of the body, but the gut actually is in the driver’s seat when it comes to feelings of anxiety. The gut even makes some of the chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that the brain uses to process its emotions and thoughts. It’s a great point-to-point communication system—when the lines are clear. Unfortunately, complicating this delicate relationship are the many stressors of life that can impact the fragile balance of bacteria in our gut. 

You’ve heard a lot about it in recent years—the importance of a healthy gut and healthy “good” bacteria…the need to take probiotics…and the dangers of poor diet, stress, certain medications and more on these delicate microorganisms. Just as there is an entire sub-universe of life living in coral reefs, so, too, there is an entire sub-universe of life living in our guts. Allow algae to grow out of control, and the reef dies. Similarly, if we allow bad bacteria to overgrow in our intestinal tract, the sub-universe gets stressed…and so do we. 

Anxiety and other health problems can arise when the balance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut ­microbiome tips toward the bad. Chronic inflammation and infection in the gut itself as well as an imbalance of neurotransmitters can lead to anxiety. Other causes include your genetics, excessive stress, medical conditions and a poor diet. Most medications, including antianxiety drugs, also can throw the gut microbiome out of balance by killing off good bacteria. 

Relieve Your Anxiety

Recent data suggests that anxiety is on the rise. Nearly 40% of Americans reported feeling more anxious in 2018 than they did the prior year, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Luckily, there is a remedy—if you ingest the right nutrients, you can influence the chemical messengers in your brain that in turn work to prevent and relieve your anxiety. The seven-step formula below is the safest and most effective way to balance your body and relieve the very unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. Here’s what to do to help restore your gut—and your head—to health…

Eliminate toxic foods from your diet. The most toxic foods are ­nonorganic, nongrass-fed red meat, which can contain antibiotics, and non-organic grains, which have most likely been exposed to the herbicide glyphosate (an ingredient in Roundup weed killer that has been linked to cancer). Best: Eat organic, non-GMO (genetically modified organism) fresh foods. 

Remove potentially allergenic foods from your diet. These foods promote inflammation and lead to imbalances in the gut microbiome. Wheat, barley, rye and other grains, dairy products, eggs and soy are common allergenic foods. Sugar is highly inflammatory and causes yeast overgrowth. Strategy: To identify what’s bothering you, try an elimination diet. Stop eating the foods listed above for two weeks, and then introduce them back one by one for a week. If you start to experience anxiety or other symptoms—you feel overly stimulated or alternately very tired or foggy-headed, for instance—when you reintroduce a food, then you know your body doesn’t tolerate that food well and you should avoid it. Be aware that the reaction may be delayed anywhere from a few hours to a day. 

Avoid highly processed foods. Most Americans consume too much sugar from products such as sodas, baked goods, candy and ice cream. Sugar has been associated with a host of diseases, and it can directly affect your mood. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 25 grams a day for women and 36 grams for men. This recommendation is for healthy people. If you have anxiety, cut out as much sugar as possible

Look at the ingredients list. You probably have already heard the wise advice that if you can’t pronounce the name of a chemical on a label, it’s better not to eat it! Buy most of your food in the outer aisles of the supermarket where you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables. If you do buy prepared foods such as canned soup or a frozen entrée, try to find ones that have just a few ingredients and that don’t contain artificial flavorings, sweeteners or preservatives.

Consume fermented foods that contain good bacteria (probiotics), including sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, miso and tempeh. Ingest a few tablespoons of fermented foods daily to keep your gut microbiome in balance. 

Take probiotic supplements. In spite of encouraging reports about probiotics, research still is in the early stages. Many animal and human studies suggest a wide variety of benefits—especially emotional health benefits. Example: A 2019 study of “stressed-out” adults who took a daily probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus plantarum DR7 found that they had reduced stress and anxiety symptoms after eight weeks compared with people who received a placebo. Participants’ cortisol levels (a measure of stress) also were lower. Best: Look for a probiotic supplement that contains multiple strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, both of which have been shown in research studies to reduce anxiety symptoms. Start with a dose of 15 billion live bacteria in the morning before breakfast, and adjust upward to 50 billion as long as you can tolerate the higher dose without experiencing gas and/or bloating. 

The independent supplement testing group Consumer Lab ranks these brands well: Align, Culturelle, Florastor, Jarrow Formulas, Nature’s Way Primadophilus Optima and Sigma-Tau VSL#3 The ­Living Shield.

Eat high-fiber foods such as beans, oats, avocado and fruits with skins such as pears and apples. They provide ­prebiotics, which are nourishment for the probiotics in your gut. There’s also emerging evidence in animal studies that high-fiber foods themselves may have antianxiety and antidepressant effects. A study published in Biological Psychiatry suggests a beneficial role of prebiotic treatment for stress-related behaviors. The government recommends that women over age 50 consume at least 22 grams of fiber daily and men over age 50 eat 28 grams. Examples: A cup of black beans has 15 grams…a slice of whole-grain bread may have about two to four grams. Since most people fall short of fiber-consumption recommendations, also consider taking a fiber supplement to ensure that the good bacteria in your gut are well fed. 

Other Natural Anxiety Remedies

Aloe vera juice. This plant is known for its healing properties for burns, but a study found that aloe vera juice also promotes the growth of healthy Lactobacillus in the gut microbiome. Try consuming two to four ounces once or twice a day. You can notice a change within days.

Hemp oil. Cannabidiol (CBD) is often labeled as hemp oil. The compounds found in hemp plants have been shown to have many healing properties and now are being sold widely throughout the US in a variety of forms from liquids and oils to creams. Hemp oils help to heal the gut lining and enhance the immune system, 70% of which is found in the gut. They also have been shown to manage anxiety and depression symptoms by enhancing the activity of neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are essential to mood. 

How to take it: Experiment with doses and formulations. I sell a hemp oil formulation on my website, and I suggest starting with the 500-milligram (mg) or 750-mg bottle and taking one dropperful (8.3 mg of the 500-mg or 12.5 mg of the 750-mg bottle). Wait 30 minutes to see if your anxiety ­eases. If it doesn’t, take another dropperful and then another (maximum four droppers per day).

To ensure quality hemp oil, look for a label that says “GMP,” which stands for “good manufacturing practices.” This means that an independent lab has verified the product’s ingredients. 

Stick to hemp products, which don’t contain any of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that makes you high and still is illegal in most states without a prescription. Note: CBD will have either 0% or under 0.3% THC. This will not make you high. But CBD can accumulate in your body, and there is a chance that it could yield a positive drug test. This is a concern if your job has random drug testing. 

Important: Hemp oils can interact with certain medications but generally only in doses close to 100 mg a day. If you are on blood thinners, there are interactions so talk to your doctor.