Is Your Gut Health Impacting Your Recovery or Vice Versa?

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infographic showing how anxiety affects different parts of the body

Is recovery giving you anxiety? Causing you to have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep at night? Is it difficult to make new friends, deal with past trauma, or figure out what to do with your newfound free time in sobriety?

If so, you’re not alone. It is common to deal with anxiety as you begin to unpack the past and determine where everything goes in your new life, and for most people, anxiety in recovery can come with significant gut health issues.

What Are Gut Health Issues?

Chronic problems in the gut are some of the most common reasons that people go to the doctor, and gut health issues are some of the most difficult problems to pinpoint. For example, many patients head to the doctor to address symptoms like:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Sharp or dull stomach pains
  • Gassiness
  • Nausea

There are a number of different chronic ailments that can manifest in these symptoms, and rather than being physical, many have a psychological basis. Anxiety can have a significant impact on how the brain and body functions, causing a host of health issues that can make it difficult to function in daily life and contribute to the urge to relapse in recovery.

Your Second Brain

It is not just your brain that manages neurotransmitters and emotional and cognitive function. Though your brain handles the literature analysis and deep philosophical thinking, your gut is responsible for accepting and processing a great deal of other emotional and physical stimuli. There are, for instance, about 30 neurotransmitters in the gut just as there are in the brain, and an estimated 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a “feel-good” chemical, is found in the gut as well. The processes that happen here can impact how you feel and vice versa.

Daniela Jodorkovsky, MD, is a gastroenterologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. She says: “The GI tract is considered the ‘second brain’ because it contains many nerves, which send signals back and forth to the brain. Chronic stress and anxiety release a compound in the brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). This can have effects on spasms or diarrhea, as well as increased pain signaling from the nerve fibers of the gut to the brain.”

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Is There a Fix for Gut Issues and Anxiety in Recovery?

Yes, and like everything in recovery, there is no one quick fix that’s going to wipe out all your anxiety and fix your gut health issues at the same time. Instead, there is a unique combination of things that you can try in order to find what works best for you and in what combination. To get started in figuring out what will work best for your body and your health, you can:

  • Talk to your mental health provider. If you are currently seeking treatment for anxiety, it is a good idea to ask about lifestyle changes you can make that will help you to lower your overall levels of anxiety as well as manage acute stress when it arises.
  • Talk to a recovery expert. If you are taking any medication for the treatment of anxiety, it is important that you involve your therapist or other substance abuse treatment professional as you determine what is the best choice for you. Too often, general practitioners will hand out prescriptions for benzodiazepines to patients dealing with anxiety to take “as needed.” However, for people in recovery, “as needed” can turn into “all at once” or “every day, all day,” and since these drugs are highly addictive, it can mean relapse very quickly.
  • Do what feels easiest now. Things like drinking more water, going to bed an hour earlier than usual, trying out a few different yoga classes, or swapping French fries for a side salad every day are simple ways to begin making your lifestyle more conducive to positive gut and mental health. Do what feels easy to you, and do it consistently.
  • Make a plan for the big changes. If a large part of your anxiety stems from financial anxiety, problems at home with your spouse or other family members, or significant trauma, it’s going to take time to heal. Work with an expert you trust who understands your history of addiction and has the knowledge to help you make and stick with a plan that will benefit you now and in the long run.

Are anxiety and gut issues making it harder for you to stay sober? How are you staying on track in recovery and continuing your healing process?