Managing School Anxiety Starts with a Healthy GutJul 30, 2021 ● By Carrie Jackson
Dr. Meena Malhotra, MD
Going back to school can be anxiety-provoking under normal circumstances, and the challenges of the past year may bring additional stress. Students are adapting a new routine, learning in different formats and perhaps meeting teachers and peers in person for the first time. Dr. Meena Malhotra, MD is the medical director at Heal n Cure, an integrative facility in Glenview that specializes in functional medicine. She says that holistically reducing anxiety and promoting happiness starts with a healthy gut, and people of all ages can benefit from proactively optimizing their gut function to manage stress.
What is the connection between the brain and the gut?
The gut is the center of how every system in the body functions. Most neurotransmitters (NT) or their precursors are made in the gut. GABA is one of the most important calming NTs, which helps reduce anxiety, stress and muscle tension, and improve sleep and mood. When the gut is out of sync, our physiological, emotional and intellectual regulators are all thrown off. Supporting a healthy and balanced intestinal microbial community is essential for the integrity of our overall health. Eating whole foods including lentils, nuts and whole grains supplies the macronutrients you need for energy and fiber to facilitate regular digestion. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense and contain the prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients and phytonutrients that help support optimize cellular function. Micronutrients such as minerals, vitamins and herbs are used to help support the body in detoxification. Macronutrients like protein and healthy fat should be consumed with every meal to provide the building blocks for the NT.
What are some signs the gut is not working properly?
We live in such a fast-paced society and often don’t pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. Eating too quickly or on the go can contribute to poor digestion and the body not being in balance. This affects us physically, as well as emotionally. I encourage people to start with a self-assessment to establish their baseline health and needs. If they are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, foggy brain, diarrhea or constipation, bloating, cravings, allergies and eczema, those are indications that the system isn’t in homeostasis. In the clinic, we can do blood and urine tests for biomarkers that indicate areas of imbalance. When the gut is off, it affects the way we respond or react to stress. For example, if a student is worried about a test, it is normal to experience anxiety. A healthy level of anxiety will lead to a response where student would spend extra time studying and feel better prepared for the test. If the body isn’t producing the right GABA, the student is more likely to experience debilitating stress and the inability to concentrate, sleep or think, which is a pathological response to anxiety and a sign that you need help in restoring the gut/brain axis.
How can parents support students returning to school?
Children learn by example, and the practices they see in their household growing up can have a lasting impression. If parents eat a variety of whole, nourishing food, children will pick up the same habits and learn to incorporate it into their own meals. It’s tempting to want to shower students going away to college with care packages that contain sugary comfort food, but aim instead to include wholesome treats like nut flour cookies or homemade trail mix. Nut allergies are common with children, and parents should be proactive in offering other kinds of healthy fats, including seeds, coconut, fatty fish and seafood to ensure they have the proper nutrients to regulate their emotions. This also gets them experimenting with different foods and broadens their palate.
What else can students do to ensure their holistic health?
Late-night studying and packed schedules can wreak havoc on the whole body, but especially the gut. When you sleep, your body goes into “rest and digest” mode and that is when the body heals and restores. I encourage people of every age to make restful, restorative sleep a priority for their overall wellness. Exercise is an important tool for managing stress and anxiety, but it does not necessarily have to be 30 minutes of aerobic activity or taking part in a sport. Studies show that regular movement through NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, can be equally impactful. Kids can increase their activity by walking to school, raking leaves, cleaning the house or playing Frisbee. In some cases, supplements can help support gut health and overall wellness.
n Cure uses a specialized line of supplements called Vital Dose, which is a
customized combination of medicinal herbs, minerals, vitamins and fatty acids
for good health. Because Vital Dose is formulated based upon a patient’s unique
biochemistry, there is a targeted response and much improved tolerance. And if
students do feel down, overwhelmed or anxious, it’s important to talk to
someone about how they are feeling. Most schools have a social worker available
and students can also reach out to a mentor, coach, counselor or other trusted
adult to get the support they need.
Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.