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An image of a woman holding her stomach overlaid with an image of a woman with her head in her hands.iStock

Anxiety? It might be in your gut

Between precarious job markets, spiralling property prices, and constant online connectivity, these are undoubtedly anxious times for young people.

Stats back this up, with almost one in five 16-24-year-olds in the UK struggling with anxiety. However, a recent study suggests that our anxiety levels may not just be driven to what's going on inside our brains, but in our bellies as well.

After carrying out research on mice, scientists at University College Cork, Ireland, found a strong link between high levels of depressive and anxious behaviour and having a low level of gut microbes.

The study showed that mice reared 'microbe-free' displayed higher anxiety levels than those with them.

It's believed the gut’s microbiotic environment influences molecules in two areas of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala), which are both tied to a range of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

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Links between what you eat and what you feel are nothing new. So could the latest findings mean that in years to come we'll not only focus on the ins-and-outs of brain chemistry and antidepressants but also take a more holistic view of our mental health?

A double-pronged treatment could be encouraging news to those who have a generalised anxiety disorder. After all, in the UK it's believed up to 5% suffer with it and young people are disproportionately affected.

However, treating food as the magic solution to complex mental issues is by no-means being suggested.

Over the past few years 'clean-eating' trends have been criticised by experts saying they can lead to a problematic approach to food, demonstrably unhealthy extremes.

Yet while fad diets may have been debunked, according to one specialist, paying attention to your gut isn’t another mere craze.

“It definitely isn’t just a trend,” says Dr Megan Rossi, Research Associate at King’s College London.

The gut’s sudden rise to prominence as an arbiter of our mental health is due to technological advances, she explains. “We weren’t able to sequence all the bacteria and understand their genetic profiles and their functionality until now,” she explains.

Only in the last 10 years has the tech been available to understand the gut’s true potential. “I definitely see the gut as like a second brain,” she says. And, like the brain, we are far from understanding all of its mysteries.

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But there are some things you can do to keep your gut—and your brain—fighting fit.

Fermented foods, such as kimchi or live yoghurt, are thought to be beneficial, while recipes including pulses and legumes, onion, garlic, dates, figs, and asparagus can all help good bacteria to flourish.

Dr Rossi says variety is also key: overdosing on just one kind of veg won’t bring the health benefits that varied, plant-based foods do. And she is keen to stress that food isn’t a miracle cure, especially when it comes to severe, chronic depression.

But being kind to your gut might be one important way of being kinder to your mind.

If you'd like more information and support about mental health, these organisations might be able to help.