Does Your Child Have Anxiety? Improving Gut Health May Help.
Anxiety is a growing problem in our culture. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorder affects 40 million American adults — that’s almost 20% of the population.
But it’s not just adults. According to NAMI, 7% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have an anxiety disorder diagnosis as well.
Anxiety is a mental health issue. And when most people think of mental health, they think of the brain. And while anxiety is closely tied to what’s happening in the brain, there’s more to the story.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Your brain contains 100 million neurons. Neurons are cells that serve as messengers. They transfer information using chemical and electrical impulses. Neurons are involved in every thought and feeling you experience.
But the brain isn’t the only place you’ll find them. Your gut contains neurons as well. These neurons line the gastrointestinal system. In fact, your gut holds 500 million neurons — 5 times the amount in your brain. So much so that the gut has been labeled the “second brain”.
This second brain is also known as the enteric nervous system, or ENS. The ENS is responsible for many of your digestive processes — including the release of digestive enzymes, swallowing, and identifying nutrients and waste products.
But the ENS isn’t only tied to digestion. Your gut produces some of your feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA as well. In fact, the gut is responsible for the majority of the serotonin production in the body.
But the ENS doesn’t work alone. The ENS is connected to the central nervous system (CNS) through your nerves. The largest nerve in your body — the vagus nerve — runs from the brain all the way down to your digestive tract. The vagus nerve is the main highway between your CNS and your ENS. And it’s a two-way street.
This means information goes both directions. What’s happening in your brain affects your gut. But also, what’s happening in your gut affects your brain. Your body uses neurotransmitters to keep this communication path active. This is known as the gut-brain-axis.
It’s no accident that we feel so many of our emotions in our gut. If you’ve felt a ‘knot’ in your stomach when you’re worried or had digestive distress in the midst of intense emotion, you’ve experienced this connection.
But the reverse, while less obvious, is also true. If you have dysfunction in your gut, it can affect your brain.
Anxiety, stress, and depression can all be linked to what’s happening in your gut.
It’s not just the neurons and neurotransmitters that matter here. Your gut is home to your microbiome. And the microbiome is an intrical part of the gut-brain connection.
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is composed of all the bacteria, viruses, and fungi in and on our bodies. Your body is made up of 30 trillion cells. But the microbiome contains even more — an estimated 39 trillion. And it contains thousands of different species. But because these organisms are so small, your microbiome only takes up 1 – 3 percent of your body mass.
What does the microbiome do?
The microbiome is a critical component to both physical and mental health — especially the organisms that line your digestive tract (also known as your gut bacteria).
✔ Stimulates the immune system to prevent illness
✔ Produces mood-stimulating chemicals like serotonin and GABA
✔ Supports digestion
✔ Breaks down toxins
✔ Synthesizes the B vitamins, vitamin K, and some amino acids
✔ Controls fat storage
✔ Plays a role in the absorption of nutrients
✔ Replaces the lining of the gut
✔ Affects mood by releasing metabolites, toxins, and neurohormones
In fact, the microbiome is involved in so many of your body’s processes and systems that it is considered a supporting organ.
But not everything in your microbiome is helpful. Even in a healthy microbiome, you’ll find pathogenic (disease-causing) agents. But when the microbiome is balanced and healthy, the good bacteria is able to keep these unwanted invaders under control.
Problems develop when that balance is disrupted.
What happens when things go wrong in the microbiome?
Your microbiome gets its start the day you’re born. As a baby passes through the vaginal canal, they ingest bacteria. This forms the base for their microbiome. Then throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to develop through the foods we eat and the bacteria we come into contact with.
A healthy microbiome is both diverse and prolific. But our microbiomes are delicate and they can be damaged.
The microbiome is damaged by:
👎 Infectious illness
👎 Certain diets — including those high in sugar and processed foods
👎 Antibiotic use — which destroys the good bacteria along with the bad
👎 Antibacterial and disinfectant cleaning products
👎 Smoking — a 16-year study found smoking increases harmful microbes and decreases beneficial ones.
When your microbiome is disrupted, you develop an imbalance called dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can lead to both physical and mental health problems. This disruption in your gut bacteria causes all sorts of issues, including inflammation and intestinal permeability.
Intestinal permeability is one of the key factors that contributes to the development of autoimmune diseases like PANS/PANDAS. You can read more about how intestinal permeability contributes to autoimmune disease here.
Physical symptoms of dysbiosis include:
Digestive problems — including acid reflux, gas, and bloating
Skin problems — including rashes, psoriasis, and acne
Dysbiosis can be linked to the following mental health conditions as well:
ADHD and concentration issues
People with dysbiosis are more likely to have conditions like allergies, Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular problems, autism, and central nervous system disorders.
This gut imbalance has also been linked to autoimmune diseases like ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
And in my practice, I have seen a direct connection between dysbiosis and immune diseases like PANS and PANDAS. That’s why gut health and restoring a balanced microbiome is an important part of the individualized protocol I develop for each of my clients.
Getting your child’s microbiome back in balance can make a tremendous difference in both their physical and mental health. And if your child is suffering from a condition like autism or PANS/PANDAS, eliminating dysbiosis can be a game-changer.
If you’d like to learn more about how the therapies I offer could benefit your child, book a consultation below.