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Anxiety and the Second Brain

With kids back in school and parents getting into the swing of fall schedules, the topic of Anxiety has been coming up a lot. Since 1980, there has been a 1200% increase in anxiety, with 17 million people diagnosed in the US. We hear ourselves and each other saying over and over, all day long, “I am so stressed.”  At Holistica Integrative Care, we want to help you address the underlying issues that contribute to anxiety, and to treat any organic condition that is there.

Anxiety can become a debilitating condition where one’s mind is constantly on red alert.  The response of the fight or flight system stays permanently “on,” or the response to a stressor is above and beyond what is expected or normal.  Our high expectations of ourselves and each other often contribute to this.  These expectations are often so high that we cannot meet them.  Anxiety arises from the gap between what we can do and what we are expected to do.

What is the difference between stress and anxiety?  Stress can be a natural motivator, serving to protect us from danger or to help us avoid trouble.  Chronic stress wears on your adrenal glands, causes rapid aging, and can trigger deep anxiety states.  Anxiety is when this stress limits your life in some significant way, interfering with sleep, limiting performance at home or at work, or producing physical symptoms.
We can see this anxiety epidemic right before our eyes.  Many people find that they rarely ‘un-plug’ from technology, which overstimulates the brain.  We are encouraged to take on too much at home and at work, we consume food and beverages that aggravate anxiety symptoms (caffeine, alcohol, sugar), and it is difficult for many of us to commit to lifestyle changes that shift this neurological firing (e.g. yoga, meditation).  On the fast-paced treadmill of life, many of us have lost the ability to think for ourselves.

Guess what… the pharmaceutical companies have watched this epidemic gain speed and have responded with a whopping 27 drugs currently under production for the treatment of anxiety.  There are already numerous drugs on the market that are hightly effective to treat htis disorder, but doctors will soon be encouraging their patients to experiment with an entire new flotilla of drugs.  I do not know about you, but I have watched many patients ‘try’ medications for depression and anxiety, which often results in great suffering from side effects.  Not to mention, these treatments do not identify or treat the core issue at the root of the anxiety.

Many doctors’ assessments of anxiety completely miss the fact that it comes from somewhere… it’s rare that patients are actually encouraged to discover the cause of their anxiety.  Is it exclusively psychological in origin?  Most conventional treatments are aimed at the mind’s role in anxiety, but we like to look at the problem a little bit differently.

At Holistica integrative Care, we want to find the core of your anxiety.  There is something called the gut-brain connection, which identifies the gut and intestines as the ‘second brain.’  According to Michael Gershon, author ofThe Second Brain, the gut is also known as the enteric nervous system.  This second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the intestinal lining.  This sheath begins in our esophagus and ends in the rectum and contains millions of neurons– even more than the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.

If this is true, we must treat our guts FIRST, before we start with the mind-suppressing medications that decrease anxiety.  For starters, the standard american diet and the way in which we consume food in this country causes actual damage to this lining–our second brain.  The fried food, lack of nutrients, use of antibiotics and pesticides, and lack of good bacteria can lead to food sensitivities, poor digestion, and delayed gastric emptying.  All of this combined with our hectic lifestyle can lead to functional impairments of the gut lining, which decrease levels of the brain chemicals that are usually produced there.

In 2011, a study confirmed that commensual gut microbiota (the stuff that probiotics produce) has an effect on the central nervous sytem (CNS) in normal, healthy animals.  GABA is the primary neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting many physiological and psychological processes.  If someone’s GABA is low, it is likely they could be struggling with depression and/or anxiety.  Alterations in the central GABA receptor expression are often implicated in the disorders of anxiety and depression.  These are also found in functional bowel disorders.  The researchers found that long term use of Lactobacillus rhamnosus induced changes in areas of the brain.  The study showed increased activity in the cortical regions and reductions in other areas such as the hippocampus and amygdala.  Most importantly, the findings were that Lactobacillus rhamnosus reduced stress-induced anxiety and depression related behavior in mice.  This study confirmed the bidirectional communication of the gut and brain.  It suggests that gut bacteria may be useful therapeutic treatments of anxiety and depression. (Bravo JA, Forsythe P, Chew MV, Escaravage E, Savignac HM, Dinan TG, Bienenstock J, Cryan JF. Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 20;108(38-):16050-5)

I love research like this.  It is comforting to know that there is finally substantial evidence to convince peer reviewers of the gut-brain connection.  Proof of significant gut-brain communication suggests that we must treat one to address the other.  As we age, our gut often becomes less healthy and increasingly compromised, but when anxiety or depression become a limiting factor, practioners are not looking at the belly button.  They want to medicate the brain.  Let the doctors at Holistica Integrative Care examine the causes and provide the nutrients necessary to heal the second brain, before taking the step toward medication.  Consider treatment of your gut first, and then get support to make some critical lifestyle changes.  By slowing down the pace of the brain and supporting the gut, you may just gain an appreciation for life that you have not yet experienced.