Have you ever felt anxious, and then your stomach starts to churn? 

Or maybe you feel like you’re always bloated and also experience shortness of breath, chest tightness and circular thinking.

If so, you’re not alone! 

The close connection between anxiety and gut health has been long recognized by Chinese Medicine, while modern science is only now catching up to this concept.

The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it contains it’s own complex network of neurons and neurotransmitters that communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. This connection between the gut and brain is known as the “gut-brain axis” and plays a crucial role in our physical and mental health.

Imbalances in gut bacteria, digestive issues, and other gut-related problems are often linked to anxiety and other mental health issues. On the other hand, emotional stress and anxiety can directly affect the digestive system, resulting in symptoms like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

In Chinese Medicine, the digestive system is considered to be the foundation of all health because it is responsible for extracting nutrients from food and transforming them into energy and vital substances that nourish the body.

The body is viewed as a whole, interconnected system where different patterns can be used to diagnose various health issues. When it comes to anxiety and gut health, Chinese Medicine recognizes the close relationship between the two and typically diagnoses them based on patterns of disharmony in the body. 

For example, excessive worry or overthinking can cause stagnation in the liver, leading to digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. By addressing the underlying patterns of disharmony in the body, Chinese Medicine aims to restore balance and promote overall well-being.

Let’s take a look at a few of the main patterns related to anxiety and gut health in Chinese Medicine and discuss solutions to address them. 

Note: it’s possible to have a combination of patterns and this is to be taken as general information and not as medical advice. 

QI DEFICIENCY

In Chinese medicine, Qi deficiency is a common cause of anxiety. Qi is the vital energy that flows through the body and is responsible for maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Qi deficiency can look like : 

    • Anxiety
    • Loose stools or diarrhea
    • Indigestion
    • Bloating
    • Lack of appetite
    • Poor circulation
    • Poor sleep
    • Fatigue
    • Cold hands and feet
    • Shortness of breath
    • Fatigue or weakness 

Qi deficiency can be caused by: 

    • Poor diet
      • Low in nutrients, highly processed or refined foods, lack of variety, lack of vegetables and meat
    • Chronic stress
      • Long term stress depletes qi
    • Overwork
      • Working long hours or engaging in excessive physical or mental activity without proper rest can deplete Qi
    • Lack of exercise
      • A sedentary lifestyle can lead to stagnation of Qi in the body which leads to deficiency over time
    • Environmental factors
      • Exposure to environmental toxins, such as air pollution or chemicals, mold, parasites, etc can compromise Qi 
    • Chronic Illness
      • This wears down and uses up our energy over time much like chronic stress does
    • Aging
      • As we age, our Qi naturally becomes weaker, leading to deficiencies

How to fix it:

It is important to focus on nourishing the body and promoting the flow of Qi. This can be achieved through a variety of methods, including dietary changes, exercise, and acupuncture. 

Eating foods that are rich in Qi, such as root vegetables (sweet potato, carrot, beet), mushrooms, and leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens), fruit (pears, apples, berries) can help to support the body and promote Qi flow.

You also want to consume foods that are warm and cooked. Raw and cold foods, such as ice water, smoothies, salads, sushi, and cold drinks, require more Qi and blood to warm up the stomach to the right temperature range for our digestive enzymes to function properly. This can deplete our energy levels further, making it important to choose warm and cooked foods for easier digestion.

Regular exercise, such as walking, yoga, or tai chi, can also help to improve Qi circulation and reduce anxiety.

Acupuncture is another effective method for treating Qi deficiency and anxiety. It involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of Qi. This can help to alleviate anxiety and other symptoms of Qi deficiency by promoting overall balance and harmony in the body.

QI STAGNATION

In Chinese medicine, Qi stagnation happens when we’re super stressed, overworked, and not exercising enough.  When Qi becomes stuck or stagnant, it can cause both physical and emotional symptoms. When we become stressed, we tend to tense up our shoulders, jaws and even our digestive system. This can also cause a “bottling up” of emotions if you don’t find a way to process it (journaling, meditation, exercise, talking it out, or some other form of release).

You can think of it as a traffic jam on the freeway — when there’s an excessive build-up of Qi due to stress and frustration, it’s like a traffic jam causing blockages and slowing down the flow of energy in the body. This can lead to symptoms such as digestive issues, anxiety, and a feeling of being stuck or stagnant, just like how a traffic jam can cause frustration, anxiety, and delays in reaching our destination.

In the gut, this can lead to slow digestion, constipation, SIBO and an imbalance in gut bacteria, which can contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues. 

Similar to how a clogged drain can cause water to backup and overflow, Qi stagnation in the gut can create a buildup of tension and discomfort, leading to anxiety symptoms. By promoting the flow of Qi through the body and supporting gut health through proper nutrition and self-care practices, it is possible to alleviate anxiety symptoms and promote overall wellbeing.

What else it may look like:

  • Feeling tense or irritable
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Depression or feelings of sadness
  • Feeling stuck or stagnant in life
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Digestive issues, such as bloating or constipation
  • Muscle tension or stiffness, particularly in the neck and shoulders
  • Menstrual irregularities or menstrual pain
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or low energy levels
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping

How to fix it:

Address the root causes of stress and anxiety

Taking a proactive approach to your emotional well-being means minimizing the sources of your stress wherever possible. This can involve examining your environment, relationships, and daily habits to identify areas that may be causing stress or triggering negative emotions. By making necessary changes, you can reduce the impact of these factors on your mental and physical health before they manifest into bigger issues.

Regular exercise

Regular exercise is an excellent way to stimulate the flow of Qi in the body. Movement-based activities such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong can help to stretch the body, improve circulation, and increase energy levels. These activities also provide an opportunity to connect with the breath and cultivate mindfulness, which can further enhance the benefits of exercise.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing exercises such as abdominal breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and lion’s breath can help release tension in the body and promote the flow of Qi. These techniques work by calming the mind, reducing stress, and stimulating the relaxation response.

Meditation

Meditation can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation, which can in turn help to release tension in the body and promote the flow of Qi. 

Eat Qi stimulating foods

Certain foods can help to promote the flow of Qi in the body, while others can hinder it. 

Foods that are considered to be warming, such as ginger, garlic, green onion, cinnamon, fennel, turmeric, and cayenne pepper, can help to stimulate the flow of Qi and promote circulation.

In contrast, foods that are considered to be cooling, such as cucumber and watermelon, can hinder the flow of Qi. 

Eat peacefully

Focus on only eating and not multi-tasking (tv, work, driving, scrolling).  This causes us to tense up and not produce as much enzymes or stomach acid because we are focused on things other than digestion. Take time to taste, smell, and feel yourself chewing your food. 

Chew your food until it’s liquid before swallowing. When food is not chewed properly, it can cause blockages in the flow of Qi. By taking the time to chew your food thoroughly, you allow the digestive system to work more efficiently and promote the flow of Qi throughout the body. It’s recommended to chew each bite of food around 20-30 times, which may feel like a lot at first, but it can make a significant difference in promoting healthy digestion and preventing Qi stagnation.

BLOOD DEFICIENCY

In Chinese medicine, the blood is believed to nourish and stabilize the mind. When there is a deficiency of blood, the mind can become restless, agitated, and anxious. Blood deficiency can cause a lack of clarity and focus, as well as difficulty with decision-making and problem-solving. It may also lead to insomnia, heart palpitations, and other physical symptoms that can contribute to anxiety. Additionally, the liver plays a significant role in the smooth flow of qi and blood throughout the body. When there is blood deficiency, the liver may become congested, further exacerbating feelings of anxiety and restlessness.

What causes it:

    • Diet
      • When the body does not receive enough nutrients to produce healthy blood
      • Highly processed foods that are low in nutrients
      • Vegan/Vegetarian diets
      • Lack of variety in foods
    • Chronic illness or infection that consumes blood
    • Excessive blood loss from chronic heavy menstrual bleeding, childbirth or injury
    • Overwork and chronic stress
    • Weak digestive system that can’t properly absorb nutrients
    • Inherited constitution or genetics

What it may look like:

    • Pale complexion
    • Dizziness or vertigo
    • Numbness or tingling in the limbs
    • Insomnia or restless sleep
    • Dry skin or hair
    • Brittle nails
    • Scanty or absent menstruation
    • Fatigue or lethargy
    • Blurred vision
    • Anxiety or restlessness

Blood deficiency is similar to anemia in Western medicine, which is a condition where there is a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. However just because you’re experiencing the symptoms above does not necessarily mean that you are anemic. It’s important to work with an experienced Functional Medicine practitioner who will run a comprehensive blood panel to find out before taking iron willy-nilly (which can be dangerous).

How to fix it:

Eat blood-nourishing foods: 

Foods that nourish the blood include animal meats, especially organ meats, such as liver and kidney. Other foods that are rich in iron and other nutrients include dark leafy greens, beets, dates, goji berries, and black sesame seeds.Vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits and berries can help with iron absorption. Bone broth and other collagen-rich foods also help to support overall blood health. 

Cook with herbs: 

Chinese herbs that nourish the blood include dang gui (angelica root), shu di huang (rehmannia root), and bai shao (white peony root). These herbs can be added to soups, stews, and teas.

Practice self-care: 

Stress can contribute to blood deficiency, so it is important to prioritize self-care practices such as meditation, yoga, and acupuncture to help manage stress levels.

Get adequate sleep: 

Good quality sleep is essential for overall health, including blood health. Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

Avoid excessive alcohol consumption: 

Excessive alcohol consumption can deplete the blood and lead to blood deficiency. Limit alcohol consumption or avoid it altogether.

Support digestion: 

Good digestion is essential for the absorption of nutrients that nourish the blood. Eat warm, cooked foods and avoid cold, raw foods, which can be harder to digest. Herbal teas such as ginger tea can also help with digestion.

As you can see, the relationship between anxiety and gut health is a complex one, but Chinese medicine offers several effective ways to address it. Acupuncture, dietary changes, and stress management practices can all help support gut health and reduce symptoms of anxiety. 

So, if you’re feeling anxious and your gut is acting up, consider incorporating some of these Chinese medicine practices into your daily routine for a happier, healthier you!


If you’re interested in delving deeper into your anxiety and gut health, consider scheduling a 30-minute virtual Functional Medicine Consultation. 

During the consultation, we review your health history and symptoms to determine which diagnostic tests are necessary. These typically include comprehensive bloodwork and stool testing, as well as other cutting-edge tests as needed to to identify the root causes of your symptoms

During the next session, the Case Review, we analyze the test results and create a personalized treatment plan for you, which includes tailored recommendations for your diet, lifestyle, and supplements. This approach ensures the most efficient and effective treatment plan for your unique needs.