It’s 3am and I’m awake, drenched in sweat, freezing cold, and I have a throbbing headache. I didn’t wake up from a nightmare, nor is my room too warm. It’s just a thing that happens, and I don’t know why. If I’m lucky I can go back to sleep after I peel off my pajamas, and I’ll wake up in the morning without a headache. If I’m unlucky this headache will haunt me all day and even trigger a weak stomach, and have me in and out of the bathroom long into the afternoon. It’s a 50/50 chance, and the trigger is a mystery.
Was a mystery.
I pride myself on being a healthy vegan––I eat a balanced diet, exercise, and look the part. However, for years I was experiencing night sweats and headaches with associated stomach weakness. It would usually happen so rarely I didn’t think anything was amiss; though last March, while visiting Atlanta for 2 weeks, these symptoms nearly ruined my trip, and even caused my ironclad mother to worry. “It just happens, it’s no big deal,” was my response.
I really didn’t think it was a big deal. I had suffered from headaches all my life, and though they’d almost completely gone away in adulthood, this reemergence didn’t trigger alarms for me. I knew headaches. I knew stomach problems too. I’d spent my share of school days in the doctor’s office, and curled up in the school nurse’s office as a kid.
It did, however, become a big deal this past fall when the headaches turned to migraine level, and no amount of Tylenol could save me from the discomfort and pain. What had changed?
For over 3 years I had been running my own business, afraid to ever cease contemplating my lack of success for fear that the elusive success would move further out of grasp. The stress was becoming erosive. I was utterly depressed. My relationship, as I had known it for so many years, was over. I felt broken: robbed of the will and the way to piece myself back together.
One insanely early morning as I lay in bed drenched in sweat, my head throbbing, I researched all of the possible causes of my affliction. Kidney failure….cancer…anxiety…
I had done this research before. I’d read extensively about every individual possibility, except for anxiety. I didn’t have the luxury of working on my anxiety. Without it I would never get anything done. And then what?
Thankfully that morning I was extra desperate and I finally realized that I was dealing with a pretty destructive form of anxiety that needed an intervention.
So what did I do? I picked up a $33 bottle of probiotic pills at Whole Foods, and I wished for the best.
Before I go into why I chose to tackle my 24/7 stress with supplements, let me just give you the 2 month update: they worked! Even better, I have been able to overcome the meta-anxiety that came from worrying about letting go of my stress.
Now the details: What is a probiotic, how does it help with anxiety, and is it simply a placebo effect?
I’m sure you’ve seen yogurt commercials praising the benefits of probiotics and promising to supply your gut with enough to make all of your problems go away! Well, there is a little truth to that, but it probably doesn’t come in Yoplait packaging.
Probiotics are the billions of good/healthy bacteria in your gut. Fiber keeps your intestines “clean” and at maximum nutrient absorbing capacity, while healthy bacteria maintains a balanced ecosystem, keeping bad bacteria and pathogens at bay. They also help strengthen your immune system by fighting bad bacteria and increasing T cells responsible for immune defense. Most interestingly, in my opinion, scientists have discovered that gut bacteria influences anxiety and depression. Researchers have found that mice with low levels of good bacteria suffer more anxiety than mice with high levels of good bacteria. When fed healthy bacteria the anxious mice show reduced anxiety.
How is this happening? Those billions of good microorganisms in your gut produce serotonin, dopamine, and GABA––three well studied neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of joy and well-being. Perhaps via the vagus nerve––the telephone line between your gut and your brain––these neurotransmitters, and others, influence how you feel.
In an article from the Atlantic about the topic, the author, referring to neuroscientist John Cryan, states:
“Cryan suggests that over time, at least a few microbes have developed ways to shape their hosts’ behavior for their own ends. Modifying mood is a plausible microbial survival strategy, he argues that “happy people tend to be more social. And the more social we are, the more chances the microbes have to exchange and spread.”
Makes sense to me; and because of the extensive research that continues to come out about the link between gut bacteria and mood, I feel confident that my own experience with taking a probiotic pill is not a placebo effect.
For about 2 months I have not woken up in a cold sweat. Nor have I woken up with a migraine, or suffered from anxiety tummy aches. With so much happening around the holidays, I forgot why I had started taking probiotics, until one day while visiting the microbiome exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, it dawned on me that the probiotics were working.
Without anxiety controlling my outlook on life, or anxiety making me fear not being anxious, I have been able to thoroughly and confidently reassess my life. I’ve been able to step off of the hamster wheel and sit down with a pen and paper to joyfully create a plan of action for the next few months. I didn’t know what it felt like to live without anxiety running the show until it was gone. I still get stressed out, and feel worried, but now it feels like a healthy reaction to life, and it doesn’t consume me anymore. In the absence of anxiety I am sleeping like a baby, and making decisions inspired by courage instead of fear.
It’s a chain reaction that leads to health, just as it’s a chain reaction that leads to sickness. I started taking a probiotic, which helped lessen my anxiety, which helped me sleep well, which helped me think more clearly, which has helped me make better life decisions, etc…..
The first step is a gut healing.
In the new year I will not have as much time to create and photograph recipes, so I will start exploring more of the soul in Sweet Potato Soul. I’d like to write more about the things that are making me glad to be alive. Probiotics are the perfect start. If you aren’t eating a great diet your results may not be as noteworthy, but I’ll talk more about that too 😉
Have you had a positive experience taking a probiotic supplement? Please share!
Some links and sources you might enjoy:
- Probiotic that I am taking: Renew Life Women’s formula I bought mine at Whole Foods and take 1 every evening before bedtime
- Fascinating episode of RadioLab about gut bacteria & stuff
- When Gut Bacteria Changes Brain Function by David Kohn for the Atlantic
- Study: Early-life stress, gut bacteria, and depression
- Study: “Mind-altering microorganisms” by John Cryan and Timothy Dinan
- Microbiome Monday series on the American Museum of Natural History Blog