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Is Anxiety Really All In Your Head? The Anxiety-Gut Connection

This week, I’d like to introduce you to Zerla Stoller, a powerhouse mom and entrepreneur who helps women to achieve amazing things and feel better through gut and hormone balance. I was lucky enough to connect with Zerla a few weeks ago and was immediately intrigued by what she had to say. Even luckier, she was up for a little collaboration to share some of her wisdom about anxiety here on the blog. The timing was perfect, as I started focusing on anxiety in last week’s post. I hope you get as much out of it as I did! And so without further ado… Here’s Zerla.

Is Anxiety Really All In Your Head? The Anxiety-Gut Connection

Have you experienced ongoing anxiety despite all your efforts?  You have gone to countless visits with your healthcare provider, mental health therapists, exercised, tried meditation, or have seen a number of practitioners, but it continues to burden you time and time again.  Anxiety can lead to an obsession, of constantly finding the “next thing” that will hopefully be the cure to your anxiety.  I talk from experience.  I was obsessed!

In Western Medicine, the cause of anxiety is said to be from the imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain.  As a result, medications such as SSRIs (Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Zoloft, Lexapro), are typically prescribed to “fix” the imbalance of neurotransmitters.   Although medications may be helpful in reducing painful symptoms, it does not address the underlying issues, which can be corrected to make anxiety more manageable or even gone.  The brain seems to be the sole focus when managing anxiety.

When I was experiencing severe bouts of anxiety, I got tired of relying on medications to feel well enough to function.  I wanted to get to the core.  Through my years of research of finding the “next thing,” I came across Functional Medicine.  Functional medicine heavily focuses on the gut, as the gut is the gateway to optimal health.  It houses 70% of your immune system.  I know it may seem like two completely unrelated issues.  Yet, there has been numerous scientific evidence explaining the direct connection of your gut and mental health.

Let me ask you this, have you ever been in a situation where you felt “butterflies in your stomach” or felt so anxious you wanted to throw up?  Or maybe, you were so stressed out, your stomach was all tied in knots.  Looking at these examples, it’s no surprise that your gut is connected to your mental health. When you are stressed or anxious, it triggers symptoms in your gut and vice versa.  When your gut is inflamed, it can trigger certain emotions in your brain, such as anxiety, depression, or stress.

So, there is a direct brain-gut connection, which happens both physically and biochemically via the vagus nerve, chemical neurotransmitters, and the gut flora.  The vagus nerve is the gut’s direct connection to the brain.  It controls messages sent to and from the gut and other vital organs.

Your gut is said to be like your second brain.  This “brain” is also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS).  The enteric nervous system in an intrinsic network containing approximately 600 million neurons housed between the walls of your gastrointestinal tract.  This extensive network sends signals to and from the brain.  So if your gut lining is impaired either by an infection, inflammation from food sensitivities, or you have intestinal impermeability (aka leaky gut), your gut’s “brain” or ENS will send signals to the brain, which can result in poor mood.

Additionally, greater than 90% of  serotonin, your “feel good” neurotransmitter, and 50% of dopamine are produced in the gut.  A lack of these neurotransmitters is largely responsible for mental illness. These neurotransmitters, along with GABA and norepinephrine, are produced and consumed by microbes in your gut.  These different microbes make up your gut flora, also known as your gut microbiome. They contain both  good and bad microbes.  There are trillions of these microbes that reside in the gastrointestinal tract that can influence the development of diseases in your enteric nervous system. A weakened immune system leads to anxiety and depression.  So maintaining a healthy gut is vital to keep your anxiety at bay.

How can you create a healthy gut?  Here are my five steps to achieve a happy gut:

Remove Triggers

The most important first step in healing your gut is to remove any potential triggers that may be damaging your gut lining.  It is important to remove these triggers as they can be the source of inflammation.  These triggers are harmful toxins that you ingest every day, which includes, heavy sugar, unhealthy fats, highly processed foods, overusing medications (NSAIDS, antibiotics, to name a few),other foods that can trigger an immune response and even stress.  Removing trigger foods and stress will help set the foundation to allow your gut to start healing.

Some of the highly inflammatory foods that can disrupt your gut lining include gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, to name a few.  There are other foods that may cause sensitivities specific to certain people.  So it’s important to address food sensitivities to avoid an immune response.

You can do this through an elimination diet.  You start by avoiding these inflammatory foods and other foods that may be giving you a reaction.  Withhold eating these foods for at least two to three weeks and slowly reintroduce them back into your diet 2-3 days at a time noting any reaction, whether it be physical or emotional, in a food journal.

For medications, it is important to talk with your doctor on how you can safely wean off of them and transition to natural alternatives.

Replace Digestive Enzymes and Juices

Digestive juices and enzymes are important to break down food so they can be absorbed and also to kill  pathogenic bacteria, parasites, and fungi from your food. It helps prevent infection in your gut, which can lead to inflammation.

The first step is to chew your food thoroughly.  This helps to stimulate your digestive juices.  This also ensures that those smaller food particles can be fully digested with your digestive enzymes and juices.

You can also improve digestion by taking a supplement containing enzymes with or without hydrochloric acid 10-15 minutes before you eat.

If you are on an acid-reducing medication, work with your doctor to wean off of them.  Acid-reducers will lower stomach acid.  Stomach acid is needed for proper digestion.

Address your stress.  If you are in a “fight or flight” (sympathetic nervous system, your body shuts off your parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system.

Reintroduce the “Good Bugs”

A healthy microbiome is essential for digestion and can also fight off pathogenic bacteria, fungi, or parasites.  It also helps to maintain your intestinal lining integrity, supports your immune system, and helps the absorption of nutrients from your food.

You can find these probiotics through fermented food such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh,pickles, non-dairy yogurt or kefir.  If it is hard to get in your daily probiotics through food, try a probiotic supplement.

Eat a variety of fiber-rich foods, namely vegetables.  They are rich in phytonutrients, but they also serve as food for your good bacteria.  I recommend aiming for at least 7-9 servings of vegetables a day (1 serving= ½ cup).

Restore Your Gut Lining

Your gut lining needs nutrients to function properly.

Here is time to charge up your gut with superfoods, which contains high amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and polyphenols.  You can find these in berries, leafy greens, omega-3 fats, to name a few.  Simply by sticking to a whole real food diet, you will get most, if not all, the nutrients you need to keep you gut healthy.

Taking a high quality multivitamin can also provide you with nutrients to fill in the gaps.


Create an optimal environment for healing.  Everything from what you eat, how much you sleep, your exposure to harmful environmental toxins, how you manage stress, and even how you talk to yourself, all help to create an optimal environment.

Eat Whole Foods

Support your gut with as many nutrients for healing.

Get at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep

Quality sleep will allow your body to escape your sympathetic “fight-or-flight” state into a more restful one.  This will allow you to heal, digest, and detoxify your body. Try developing good sleep hygiene and set yourself up for success.  Avoid stimulants at night, keep your room cool (at least 67 deg-70deg F), sleep in a completely dark room, avoid electronic devices 1-2 hours before bed.

Avoid exposure to harmful toxins

Harmful toxins are found in the food you eat (eg. processed or inorganic), the air your breathe, the water you drink, and the personal care products you put on your body.  So, try consuming more whole foods and organic, if possible. Open windows in your home for fresh air or buy an air filter.  Drink filtered water and avoid plastic containers.  Use “clean” personal care and cleaning products (a great resource is EWG.org/skindeep).

Manage stress

Engage in activities to lower stress such as meditation, journaling, dancing, singing.  Get help with a health practitioner or health coach.  Audit your current schedule and see where you can free up time.


This is essential.  Research has shown the many benefits of exercise including decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression.  It also improves circulation, which helps with healing.

 Create a positive mindset

Having a positive mindset will set you up for success.  Your mind greatly influences how your body functions.  Get support through family and friends.  Do things that you enjoy and make you happy.

Addressing your gut to manage anxiety, depression, and stress is important if you want to break away from the obsession of always trying to find the “next thing.”  It helped me and I know it can help you.  If you follow this guide, but continue to suffer from anxiety, you may need to dig deeper.  I can help.

 Zerla Stoller bio

What to connect further with Zerla? Check her out here: ThrivingWithZerla.com | Instagram


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