Illustration by Jiyoon Cha

Getting Over Anxiety, One Kombucha At A Time

The gut-brain axis is real

by Vivien Lee

In Vedic traditions like yoga, the solar plexus chakra (located behind the navel) is said to govern our life force, willpower, and mental abilities. And just anecdotally, who hasn't been told to listen to their gut? Our stomach and brain are known to intimately communicate through pathways between the nervous system and the digestive tract—also known as the “gut-brain axis,” or the vagus nerve. And while this isn’t new information, many studies over the past few years suggest that our gut, rather than our brain, is the principal pilot of our emotional state, mood, and overall mental well-being. 

What does this mean? If you’re one of the millions suffering from anxiety or depression who has decided against medication (a decision that should, of course, be made with a doctor), it might mean that you could just try drinking more kombucha.

Microbiota is the scientific name for the secret societies of germs found in various parts of our bodies and our planet. Our intestinal microbiome, in particular, is where our inner world famously meets the outer world. Also known as gut flora, it’s a cocktail party of genetically produced bacteria as well as foreign ones brought in through ingestion. There are good types and harmful types, with the latter known to cause dysbiosis or an imbalance in the microbiota, which has been linked to illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and stress. 

An article in The Atlantic reported that scientists who researched gut physiology in autistic people who tended to show high levels of allergies, gluten sensitivity, and digestive problems found that their microbiomes were significantly different than those of control groups. Researchers then experimented with altering the microbiomes of lab mice with autistic tendencies, as a result of which mice had displayed fewer symptoms of anxiety and became more social with other mice. This was a huge step toward the possibility of treating mental disorders through manipulating our gut chemistry and has increased focus on the potential of probiotics in reducing things like anxiety, depression, and chronic fatigue in humans.

Last November, a new study by Iranian researchers was reported to show how consumption of probiotics could improve the memory of Alzheimer’s patients. The experiment compared the experiences of 60 patients with Alzheimer’s, with 30 as a control group and the rest as an experimental group. Those in the experimental group were given probiotic drinks containing the bacterial strains Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus fermentum (also known as the bacteria found in yogurt). After 12 weeks, patients were assessed on their cognitive abilities. The trial resulted in the control group with a negative percentage of improvement, and the experimental group with a positive improvement of 27.9 percent. Though the National Center for Biotechnology Information claims the amount of evidence is still too preliminary to make solid conclusions, the results did lean toward a significant connection. 

This study was one of several that’s been conducted over the years, but the rising attention toward the world of germs has created a nexus wave of conscious consumption and even conscious interaction. While the affirmation of new agers has long been that “everything is made up of energy” and that we should surround ourselves with people who we'd most want to resemble, there’s now scientific research corresponding to how someone else’s vibes really do affect us. Not only can our gut microbiota change through our diets, but it can change just by spending time, sharing spaces, and coming in contact with others. After studying wild baboons, scientists found that those animals who spent the most time together had microbiomes that resembled one another’s.

Fascinatingly enough, it’s also the microbes in our stomach that are responsible for producing 90 percent of our bodies’ serotonin, one of the four major chemicals that dictate our emotions and behaviors. It’s been revealed that eating certain foods can increase these levels in our bodies naturally. To help our bodies produce serotonin, experts say to eat foods that contain tryptophan, like eggs, turkey, chocolate, yogurt, fish, almonds, and peanuts. Foods that contain folic acid, which is another component to producing serotonin, is also good to consider, and these include beans, lentils, oranges, strawberries, and greens like broccoli and spinach.

If you want to go straight to the source, consistent consumption of fermented food that’s made up of live culture and probiotics, like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, miso, pickles, tempeh, and, of course, kombucha, helps to maintain your gut health, which raises your body to a more balanced state overall. Can something this simple possibly cure our inner demons? While overcoming mental anxieties is more Sisyphean than remedying the common cold, tons of research is underway in this area and could help people who suffer from these illnesses and serve as a complement or potentially replacement for medication. In the meantime—and under the care of a doctor—filling your diet with these foods would be a great idea regardless of your mental state. That’s what my gut tells me, anyway.