Anxiety and gut bacteria – what’s in the books?

There seems to be a huge spike in the rise of anxiety disorders, not just in adults but also in children and teenagers. Lately frequent references are made to gut bacteria in relation to anxiety. Berkshire Woman looks at the current popular literature and theories that explore this idea.

I have been working with children and adults on and off for nearly thirty years and must say I agree, anxiety is on the rise. Whatever the reason, whether we see it more often or we finally take notice is not really focus of this piece. I have in the past done anything from treating children and adults with flower essences, to teaching  grownups and young adults meditation and have come across all sorts of anxieties and attention issues with both. The numbers increase is not all that has gone wrong. Scarily, the variety of behaviour is also on the increase. Before we had children with attention disorders, but now we also have children developing OCD as young as seven. Seriously, something is desperately wrong here.

Persistent anxiety can come from anywhere, but the common suspects are traumatic experience (and for children this can actually be caused by quite small things) or something ‘faulty’ with the system, which with adults can be variety of things. This is of course once we know it is not chemically induced either by food, drinks, hormones, environmental pollutants or mainstream medicine. This last one is perhaps a bit of a can of worms best not opened here.

People attempt to treat anxiety either by mainstream medicine or naturally, by for example using Acupuncture, healing or Flower essences, which as a rule, have no side effects (especially as children don’t usually take them internally)  and can be taken safely by children and adults alike. Some of these have to made specially by a practitioner, but some can be just bought off the shelf. Some have been used for helping with learning difficulties and behaviour issues and people have reported success with them in the past.

Anxiety and trauma of course can also be treated by a Psychologist, counsellor, hypnotherapist, acupuncturist, or an osteopath or any other therapy that does not use invasive chemicals with lasting side effects. Unless, of course this is what you prefer and some people do. At times it might be necessary.

There seems however, recently, a lot of evidence that there is a strong link between gut bacteria in the stomach and anxiety. I have also had clients in the past who had all sorts of anxieties, from some simple ones with an obvious cause, to very complex social anxieties with unresolved causes which responded very well to combined meditation and Flower Essence treatments but even better when combined with good probiotics.

Now how much truth is in this? Let’s have some clarity about this first.

According to (hugely popular) Dr David Perlmutter in the past we believed nothing crosses the brain barrier, now there seems to be a lot of evidence that all sorts of things can pass through depending on the state of the barrier. I am not a Neurologist but what current thinking suggests is that there seems to be very strong evidence that our gut is influencing our brain so strongly that bacteria in the stomach might well be dictating what we think, what we do, what we eat and how we feel.

On a lighter note  this might not look like an amazing insight considering women always knew that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ , but in fact it is huge. The gut/brain connection very strongly implies that we have far more power over what we can or cannot change and also suggests that all the harsh chemicals people take to control their mental state might not be necessary.

The most important thing is to remember that lately they are talking about two brains – one in our skull and another one in our stomach – our gut brain. Now the gut brain seems to be mostly sending messages to the head brain and not the other way around as we popularly thought in the past. This brain is not to be messed with. Just remember how you felt the last time you had food poisoning! Just how quickly you lost your ability to engage with the outside word and just how quickly your attention turned inwards. For the sake of this analysis try to recollect what you actually felt emotionally when you were in this state. Then think of that in small doses over a long period of time just as an illustration. And we have to remind ourselves here that these hard working bacteria in our gut are also responsible for our levels of vitamin B, which is responsible for energy levels and our mood. Mess with that and really you are inviting trouble right in!

So what are the latest ideas linking anxiety and gut bacteria in books on the market? I have chosen a few not because they are the absolute best (and I am not qualified to judge them on medical grounds!) , but because they sort of sum up everything else out there available to read. They cover the following (simply summarised) theories:

  • Anxiety is caused by bad bacteria
  • Anxiety, MS, Depression, behaviour and many different disorders might be linked to bad overgrowth of yeast in the gut.
  • Ninety years of antibiotics have killed off so many colonies of bacteria that the Western human is poor in variety of bacteria compared to the humans in the undeveloped world. This corresponds to a vast number of psychological disorders we also developed over time.
  • Bad bacteria has taken over, it has colonised the gut and has made holes in its wall, it is pumping all sorts of terrible poisonous toxins into the blood which then invade everything and make us anxious and causes allergies and sickness from MS, Celiac disease, gluten intolerance to full blown Depression and Anxiety
  • Bad bacteria influence crosses the brain barrier and damages brain cells causing anything from Alzheimer’s and Dementia to cancer.
  • We don’t really feed ourselves; we feed our microbiota which pre-digest lots of beneficial compounds we previously thought were for us alone. In fact, it is bacteria that are fed and live inside of us that need this nutrition. In turn they keep us healthy and happy.
  • Consumption of sugar has gone out of control. A bad bacteria feeds on sugar, and if you don’t give it any processed sugar it can and it will convert your potatoes and your rice into sugar to feed itself. It will in turn also make you crave sugar like mad so it makes sure you look after it.
  • If we decide to take some good bacteria we must feed them to survive as we would anyone.

Ok let’s see what all of this is about.

The theory goes that we have overused antibiotics for the past ninety years and have pretty much killed off a huge variety of gut bacteria needed to keep our systems healthy. The real problem here is not in the number of bacteria but in the actual variety. Considering that the average antibiotic acts as bleach in your body and kills everything it’s able to that it finds in its way – good or bad as long as it is bacterial, this is very bad news. According to the fabulous (and very funny!) German gut woman Giulia Enders, our guts are like towns – it takes all sorts of bacteria for the ‘gut town’ to function properly, from a teacher and a doctor to piano tuner. Otherwise overgrowth of one bacteria turns them into a bit of a tyrant. Baddies on the rampage is what causes everything from allergies to anxiety.

The second major influence in thinking about bacteria is work stemming from William G Crook MD, a paediatrician interested in allergies who spent most of his life trying to prove that candida is the source of all (health) evil. According to Dr Crook a lack of good bacteria causes overgrowth of yeast and this affects human health in so many different ways that including anxiety is just the tip of the iceberg and a very small portion of what actually goes on. Here the idea is that candida overgrowth happens once we kill off things that eat it. This in turn makes candida monstrously powerful and it mutates to the point where it starts burrowing into the human gut lining. While doing that it starts pumping a huge amount of toxins into the bloodstream, which gives the host an array of symptoms from MS, Depression, and obesity to allergies and anxiety attacks. Here, mention is given (and later greatly explained in a separate book) regarding infertility, miscarriages and a whole other range of hormonal problems in females. Crook explains that it is not as simple as replacing the bacteria, as the yeast is very intelligent and makes a jelly-like wall between itself and Acidophilus which loves to feast on it. To you and me it seems as if I would invite you for dinner only to serve it in the next room and expect you to eat it through the wall! He states that starving it and ingesting things to kill it is the only way to deal with candida. And this, according to Dr Crook Is not easy and can take months.

The latest thinking (books suggest with plenty of evidence) is that we really are very little human and mostly a collection and host of different bacterial and microbial genetic material is coming on hard and fast in relevance to a huge number of health conditions including anxiety and all sorts of mood disorders. We thought we consumed various nutritional compounds found in food and this was maintaining our good health. In fact there seems to be a health benefit ‘broker’ between us and some majorly important nutrition we thought was feeding us alone. It seems bacteria are ‘pre-digesting’ the compounds to feed themselves so they can work hard and keep us healthy. Our knowledge about this process is evolving so fast, that even before I finish this sentence it might be outdated. What we know now will be perhaps considered completely insufficient in ten years.  This area of scientific research is going at such a speedy rate that we no longer know just how many functions are orchestrated by the microbiome in our systems and which ones by our own cells. Its anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, it appears the bad bacteria loves sugar! It feeds on it and it will convert any food into sugar if it has to, to survive. Our Western diet, saturated with processed sugar, processed flour and based on starchy foods is heaven for bad bacteria which flourishes in this environment. The more you feed it the more likely it is that you will crave sugar more. The more sugar the more bad bacteria and all the bad things that come with it.


There seems to be a huge variety of grown up and kid’s probiotics on offer these days. A bit of a jungle of information. They come in all shapes and sizes, as chewables, as pills or as powders. It all depends on the age (of the child) as you have to be very careful what bacteria is given to what age. (Always make sure you read what it says on the pack!) Abroad I managed to source a good bacteria children’s chocolate bar, sweetened by inulin and other bacterial food! Children might not be all that interested in taking them so you might need to hide them in other things as long as they are cold and not sugary. I’ve taken to flattery and science to make sure my daughter takes them (Kefir is not her favourite!). In our house we call them ‘good bugs’. ‘Go on, drink it up” I say, “these lovely creatures need a home, they will love you for it. Drink them up and you will become their Universe. Take it and they will make you into their Goddess!”

Well, if you decide to introduce the good bugs to your gut, and perhaps attempt to become a Goddess yourself, you will have to remember to feed them. It is not good manners – swallowing your new guest then starving them to death. These things work very hard for you so make sure you give them the best food there is. The ‘bug foods’ are known as prebiotics. The rumour has it the best prebiotics are raw onion and garlic, cold boiled potatoes, green (unripe) bananas, chicory and coffee to mention but a few. For more of a gourmet taste add some bugs variety with sauerkraut, kefir or (non-Greek) yoghurt, but a plain one without sugar. So I hear these are the most natural and the best way to introduce good gut bacteria. In our house we call them bug food and magic leaves! There you go; perhaps you can join in, make up some stories and feed some fab bugs yourself and to yourself with your kid after reading this!

By B.K.

Disclaimer: We don’t aim to give medical advice or comment on any specific individual or diagnosis.

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