Improve Anxiety and the Gut Microbiome with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“A healthy gut can be different iterations of bacteria for different people, because it is this diversity that maintains wellness.” – Jennifer Wolkin
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, or 18% of the population. A characterizing feature of anxiety disorders is that the sufferer overly identifies with and personalizes their thoughts. The sufferer has recurring thoughts, such as impending disaster, that they may realize are unreasonable, but are unable to shake. Anxiety disorders have generally been treated with drugs. But there are considerable side effects, and these drugs are often abused. There are several psychological therapies for anxiety. But, about 45% of the patients treated do not respond to the therapy. So, there is a need to develop alternative treatments. Recently, it has been found that mindfulness training can be effective for anxiety disorders.
The GI tract contains intestinal micro-organisms, flora, bacteria, known as the microbiome, that have major effects throughout the body through the bacteria-intestinal-brain axis. This can affect overall health and well-being including anxiety. So, it would make sense to investigate the relationship of mindfulness practice with anxiety and intestinal micro-organisms.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders. MBCT involves mindfulness training, containing sitting, walking and body scan meditations, and cognitive therapy that attempts to teach patients to distinguish between thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors, and to recognize irrational thinking styles and how they affect behavior. But whether MBCT affects both anxiety and the microbiome has not been investigated.
In today’s Research News article “Gut Microbiota Associated with Effectiveness And Responsiveness to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Improving Trait Anxiety.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8908961/ ) Wang and colleagues recruited young adults with high anxiety levels and a similar control group with normal anxiety levels. The high anxiety group were provided with 8 weekly 2.5 hour sessions of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). They were measured before and after treatment for anxiety, depression, resilience, and mindfulness. In addition, their feces were measured for microbiota.
They found that after Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) there were significant decreases in anxiety and depression and significant increases in resilience and mindfulness. The gut microbiome significantly differed between the high anxiety group and the controls before trteatment in that the high anxiety participants had less bacterial diversity in the gut. But after MBCT the bacterial diversity levels increased to the levels of the healthy controls.
Hence, mindfulness training improves the psychological health of highly anxious young adults and simultaneously normalizes the deficiency in the bacterial diversity in the gut.
Mindfulness training is good for both physical and mental health.
“During stress, an altered gut microbial population affects the regulation of neurotransmitters mediated by the microbiome and gut barrier function. Meditation helps regulate the stress response, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation states and maintaining a healthy gut-barrier function.” – Ayman Mukerji Househam
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Twitter @MindfulResearch
Wang, Z., Liu, S., Xu, X., Xiao, Y., Yang, M., Zhao, X., Jin, C., Hu, F., Yang, S., Tang, B., Song, C., & Wang, T. (2022). Gut Microbiota Associated With Effectiveness And Responsiveness to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Improving Trait Anxiety. Frontiers in cellular and infection microbiology, 12, 719829. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcimb.2022.71982
Mindfulness-based interventions have been widely demonstrated to be effective in reducing stress, alleviating mood disorders, and improving quality of life; however, the underlying mechanisms remained to be fully understood. Along with the advanced research in the microbiota-gut-brain axis, this study aimed to explore the impact of gut microbiota on the effectiveness and responsiveness to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) among high trait anxiety populations.
A standard MBCT was performed among 21 young adults with high trait anxiety. A total of 29 healthy controls were matched for age and sex. The differences in gut microbiota between the two groups were compared. The changes in fecal microbiota and psychological indicators were also investigated before and after the intervention.
Compared with healthy controls, we found markedly decreased bacterial diversity and distinctive clusters among high trait anxiety populations, with significant overgrowth of bacteria such as Streptococcus, Blautia, and Romboutsia, and a decrease in genera such as Faecalibacterium, Coprococcus_3, and Lachnoclostridium. Moreover, MBCT attenuated trait anxiety and depression, improved mindfulness and resilience, and increased the similarity of gut microbiota to that of healthy controls. Notably, a high presence of intestinal Subdoligranulum pre-MBCT was associated with increased responsiveness to MBCT. Decreases in Subdoligranulum post-MBCT were indicative of ameliorated trait anxiety. The tryptophan metabolism pathways were significantly over-represented among high responders compared to low responders.
The significantly increased diversity post-MBCT added evidence to gut-brain communication and highlighted the utility of mycobiota-focused strategies for promoting the effectiveness and responsiveness of the MBCT to improve trait anxiety.