Mental Health & COVID-19: Use Your Gut to Reduce Anxiety & Stress

Social distancing has made our daily lives much more insular. With the global pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in people experiencing anxiety and depression. Feeling down has almost become a hard-to-shake gut feeling – given how interconnected they are. Maybe it’s time we go the source, and use our gut microbes to support our mental health.

When times are tough, we need to bolster our inner reserves against stressors. Self-confinement has meant we’re now in a world where mental health patients struggle to get support, at-home workers are logging even more hours than usual and even the most upbeat of us are feeling anxious and stressed. The uncertainty of an unprecedented pandemic is definitely taking its toll on our mental health. And scientists say we’re only at the surface of unravelling its full impact.

We can influence the state of our mind by caring for the state of our gut.

On the brighter side, research till now has helped us understand that we can influence the state of our mind by caring for the state of our gut. The incredible ability of our resident gut microbes to communicate directly with the brain via the gut-brain axis allows us to modulate and influence our psychological well-being. In addition to eating a diverse plant-based diet, there are some specific considerations for boosting mental wellbeing which we can integrate today.

What Happens in Vagus…

The wandering vagus nerve spans from our belly to brain, playing a central role in our brain-microbial communication1. It’s so crucial, that even mice with damaged vagus nerves can’t benefit from the presence of anxiety reducing microbes in the gut2. Conversely, when the vagal ‘tone’ is strong, and communication is effective, anxiety-reducing strains, such as L. Rhamnosus, have the capacity to dampen anxious thoughts and depression-related brain activity3.

We can strengthen our vagus nerve through parasympathetic nervous system activation – put simply, through the process of deep breathing, yoga, humming, singing and gargling, which all initiate this response4.

Support Your Mental Health by Starting in Your Gut

Here’s what you can you can do for your brain. Below, we’ve compiled a list of 5 notable aids, as well as foods sources, so you can put this in practice right away!

  1. Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Pay attention to this bacteria! This species has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety-like behaviour.5 No wonder it’s being trialled in ‘psychobiotic formulas6: probiotics for your brain. It is also included as part of the ‘Symprove’ probiotic formula. Food sources: fermented soy cheeses, milks and yoghurts7.
  2. Bifidobacteria longum.  Found in cultured vegetables, this helpful microbe has shown promise in reducing stress-specific responses, as well as lowering anxiety behaviours9,10. Food sources: kimchi and sauerkraut.
  3. Prebiotics GOS and FOS. This prebiotic pair will help to feed the probiotic strains which are renowned for their stress-alleviating properties, and have reduced levels of chronic stress in clinical trials11. Food sources: legumes (e.g. red kidney beans, chickpeas, split peas, lentils), hummus, cashews and pistachios, soy milk made from whole soybeans, oat milk and freekeh.
  4. Short-Chain Fatty Acids. As well as strengthening gut wall integrity, SCFA’s have been shown to attenuate stress responsivity after periods of psychosocial stress12. Food sources: prebiotics like garlic, leeks, and onions, as well as resistant-starch rich foods like green bananas and cooked and cooled potatoes13.
  5. Nature’s Tranquilliser. Magnesium is a mineral which has anxiety reducing properties due to its role with GABA modulation, a neurotransmitter involved in the relaxation response14. Up to 50% percent of people are deficient in this calming mineral15, potentially due to soil depletions, stressful lifestyles and poor diets. During stressful periods, supplementation may be worth consideration16. Food sources: dark leafy greens, almonds and dark chocolate.


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  2. Forsythe P, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA. Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axis communication. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014. doi:10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_5
  3. Bravo JA, Forsythe P, Chew M V., et al. 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. doi:10.1073/pnas.1102999108
  4. Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Front psychiatry. 2018;9:44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
  5. Foster JA, McVey Neufeld K-A. Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends Neurosci. 2013;36(5):305-312. doi:10.1016/J.TINS.2013.01.005
  6. Misra S, Mohanty D. Psychobiotics: A new approach for treating mental illness? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019. doi:10.1080/10408398.2017.1399860
  7. Coppola R, Succi M, Tremonte P, Reale A, Salzano G, Sorrentino E. Antibiotic susceptibility of Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains isolated from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Lait. 2005;85(3):193-204. doi:10.1051/lait:2005007
  8. Sisson G, Ayis S, Sherwood RA, Bjarnason I. Randomised clinical trial: A liquid multi-strain probiotic vs. Placebo in the irritable bowel syndrome – A 12 week double-blind study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2014. doi:10.1111/apt.12787
  9. Savignac HM, Kiely B, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Bifidobacteria exert strain-specific effects on stress-related behavior and physiology in BALB/c mice. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2014. doi:10.1111/nmo.12427
  10. Savignac HM, Tramullas M, Kiely B, Dinan TG, Cryan JF. Bifidobacteria modulate cognitive processes in an anxious mouse strain. Behav Brain Res. 2015. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2015.02.044
  11. Burokas A, Arboleya S, Moloney RD, et al. Targeting the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Prebiotics Have Anxiolytic and Antidepressant-like Effects and Reverse the Impact of Chronic Stress in Mice. Biol Psychiatry. 2017;82(7):472-487. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.12.031
  12. Venegas DP, De La Fuente MK, Landskron G, et al. Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs)mediated gut epithelial and immune regulation and its relevance for inflammatory bowel diseases. Front Immunol. 2019. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.00277
  13. Upadhyaya B, McCormack L, Fardin-Kia AR, et al. Impact of dietary resistant starch type 4 on human gut microbiota and immunometabolic functions. Sci Rep. 2016. doi:10.1038/srep28797
  14. Cuciureanu MD, Vink R. Magnesium and stress. In: Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. ; 2011. doi:10.1017/UPO9780987073051.020
  15. Uwitonze AM, Razzaque MS. Role of Magnesium in Vitamin D Activation and Function. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2018;118(3):181. doi:10.7556/jaoa.2018.037
  16. Beckstrand RL, Pickens JS. Beneficial Effects of Magnesium Supplementation. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2011. doi:10.1177/2156587211401746