We are currently living in uncertain times and with uncertainty comes fear, anxiety and worry. There is little research assessing the impact of viral pandemics on our mental wellbeing, but the studies that are available have shown anxiety, panic, and depression to be the predominant conditions. During lockdown and now with the easing of restrictions it is likely that we will see an increase in new anxiety disorders as well as an exacerbation of symptoms in previous diagnosed cases.
Lockdown itself became a major anxiety trigger for many through the disruption of the normal daily routine, restrictions on socialising, inability to go to work, dwindling finances and the long-term impact on the economy. Now that lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, many people are concerned not only of their risk of infection, but also returning to a normal way of life. A recent survey by Anxiety UK found that the idea of lockdown restrictions being lifted led to an increase in anxiety for 67% of the 745 members polled.
Whether you already live with an anxiety disorder or have experienced anxiety for the first time due to the pandemic, there are things you can do to help you cope with the readjustment to the lifted restrictions. There are a number of lifestyle steps that can be taken to slowly adjust to life outside lockdown.
Firstly, aim to get out of the house more regularly for your enjoyment, health and wellbeing, such as walking or jogging around the local park, rather than only going out for essential shopping or work.
Secondly, practise deep breathing techniques and creative visualisations before leaving the house if feeling particularly anxious about going out. Aim to stick to a routine of going to bed at the same time, waking-up at the same time each morning and eating meals at the same time each day, prepare and enjoy a wide variety of whole foods made from scratch with plenty of fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits.
Take action on your anxiousness by allowing yourself time out each day to focus on your mental health, such as practicing mindfulness; learning to stay in touch and grateful for the present moment, rather than worrying about the future. Most importantly, seek help from others if you are struggling, whether this is a family member, friend or work colleague and consider professional help if needed, by speaking to your GP. Also consider speaking to your employer about your mental health. Many companies and workplaces have had to adapt and become more flexible in how they operate, which could mean more opportunity to work from home for some, this could be very welcome for those who currently struggle with rush hour and public transport.
Many individuals may have already acknowledged the link between their emotional health and digestive issues, such as noticing ‘butterflies in the stomach’ when feeling apprehensive or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms related to anxiousness before leaving the house. Fortunately, our understanding of this bidirectional link between the brain and the gut (in particular the microbes that reside in the gut) is improving, as research has focused on this area in the past few years.
Dysbiosis (an imbalance of the gut microbes) and inflammation of the gut have been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Our gut microbes can become easily unbalanced from factors such as poor diet and lifestyle choices as well as antibiotic use. Stress itself can also negatively upset the balance of our gut microbes.
Whilst the mechanisms that connect anxiety to our gut health are still not fully understood. We do know that stress can increase intestinal permeability also known as ‘leaky gut’ which can allow endotoxins (produced from harmful gut microbes) to enter blood circulation, which initiates an immune response causing inflammation which can spread to the brain and influence our brain function leading to anxiety, depression and memory loss.
Live bacteria supplements have the ability to restore normal microbial balance, and therefore have a potential role in the treatment and prevention of anxiety and depression. In fact, some studies have shown that live bacteria supplements have effectively mitigated anxiety and depressive symptoms similar to conventional prescription medications.
In one study, patients suffering from chronic stress were given a three-week live bacteria treatment containing Bifidobacteria species. Those with an initially poor mood rated an overall happier mood at the end of the treatment.
A further study in 2011 found live bacteria-treated participants showed significant declines in self-reported negative mood and distress and a decrease in urinary free cortisol (the stress hormone), compared to placebo.
Those who suffer from anxiety or stress may benefit from taking a multi-strain live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Migréa 60 capsules £19.94, which targets the digestive tract and the head. It contains 14 different strains of live bacteria to help support a healthy microbial balance in the gut. Bio-Kult Migréa is also formulated with magnesium and vitamin B6, both of which contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. There is a strong body of research showing an association between stress reactions and magnesium levels. In those with severe stress, magnesium and vitamin B6 used in combination appears to elicit greater stress-reducing benefits. Magnesium and vitamin B6 are also beneficial nutrients for sleep regulation, with both being essential co-factors for melatonin production.
Claire Barnes is Technical Advisor and Nutritional Therapist at Bio-Kult