One good thing about self-isolation is that we can keep our feelings of anxiety to ourselves. No-one needs to know that we ate a whole box of white mini-Magnums two nights ago. It is something of a shame that the woman in the dodgy cardigan and funeral voice on the ITV News can’t adopt the same policy, bleakly telling us that there is little hope for anyone living within two miles of a care home as her ‘Senior Covid Reporter’ takes us around an ICU in a hospital in Lancashire showing close ups of respirators and Karen in a Perspex face shield who looks absolutely knackered after a 17 hour shift.
I am not convinced it is ‘news’ to see photos of people who have died from this coronavirus or to hear from a man in Sunderland that, “This Covid is bad. My neighbour’s got it …”. However, we have glued ourselves to these bulletins and the words ‘shielding’, ‘PPE’ and ‘Kuenssberg’ have attached themselves onto the national vocabulary like the novel coronavirus pneumonia docks onto the 1-beta chain of haemoglobin in our lungs. You have to commend the media, they have done a fine job of making many people feel absolutely terrified. They are not so good at reporting that, worldwide, more than seven and a half billion people have not contracted this virus, and neither will they tomorrow or the next day. They rate as ‘okay’ when reporting that Sarah Gilbert and her team at Oxford University is pushing through human trials of a potential vaccine, but state sternly in (at least) equal measure (rating as ‘very good’) that ‘there is the chance that an effective vaccine may never be found.’
Scientist A faces the camera in the black corner (with dodgy shelving behind him at home) and Scientist B is filmed in the white corner and they have opposing views that we do not entirely understand. You would think, wouldn’t you, that a person with the forename ‘Professor’ would have a definitive view? Apparently not. They ‘can’t be sure’ and warn us that ‘there are no certainties’, increasing levels of anxiety around the country; if these people don’t know what is going on, what chance do we stand? Isn’t it a bit like Winston Churchill announcing one day, “We will fight on the beaches …” and the very next stating that, “Beach-fighting is not recommended and will probably, in any event, cause almost inevitable defeat”?
Why does it matter, all of the above? So what? Well, I would be doing you a terrible disservice if I now explained to you the connection between anxiety and life-expectancy. Not least because tomorrow I may have the opposing view and will be able to argue it equally effectively. However, I can help you with the ‘Gut-Brain Connection’. You remember ‘feeling butterflies in your stomach’, or feeling nauseous before an exam? There is an undisputed fact, here. The gastrointestinal tract is very sensitive to emotion. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person's stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.
Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. You may have experienced all sorts of ‘symptoms’ in the past three months that you cannot put your finger on. Broken sleep, changes to your heart rate, waking up with a headache. All of these may have been caused, at least in part, by increased anxiety. Some of those scientists who have pontificated variously on Covid-19 have also come up with the term ‘gut-brain axis’. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest, connecting the gut and brain, sending signals in both directions and in animal studies, stress has been shown to inhibit the signals sent through this nerve and causing gastrointestinal problems. Gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, which helps to control feelings of fear and anxiety.
So, what can you do about this? Probiotics are live bacteria that can lead to health benefits. However, not all probiotics are the same. Those that affect the brain are often referred to as ‘psychobiotics’ and might confer a mental health benefit by affecting microbiota of the host organism (the stomach). You could try Probio 7, which can be bought in Holland & Barrett, or Organic Inulin Prebiotic Fibre from Greens Organic. Both can be purchased online.
Prebiotics, which are typically fibres fermented by our gut bacteria, may also affect brain health. One study found that taking a prebiotic called galactooligosaccharides for three weeks significantly reduced the amount of stress hormone in the body, called cortisol. These can also be found in the Greens Organic product mentioned above.
However, you should always start with the premise, ‘first do no harm’. There are things we take into our bodies which can increase anxiety by blocking substances that ameliorate it. Eating lots of processed meat, fried food, refined cereals, sweets and chocolate, cake and biscuits and high-fat dairy products can make you more susceptible to anxiety and even depression. Whereas a diet replete in whole fibre-rich grains, fruits, vegetables and fish can genuinely help. It’s worth a thought, isn’t it? Maybe start with that box of white mini-Magnums. You ate them, it’s done. Perhaps just eat three next time, or none at all next week. Replace your afternoon biscuit(s) with a handful of blueberries or some nuts. When you reach for the Bakewell tart divert to a seedless satsuma or two. Repeat for three weeks. Think of your vagus nerve as you eat. Imagine being in control of your gut-brain axis?