Germs and Worry: New Research!

September 11, 2017

As a physician in biblical counseling, I am sometimes asked about scientific articles that deal with counseling subjects. Usually the reason I am asked is that the article seems to contradict something the Bible says about the counseling problem. This week the subject was anxiety. The question usually is, if science discovers a cause for anxiety that is medical, how can it be a sin to worry? is my favorite source of scientific articles that impact biblical counseling. Recently they summarized an interesting article that discusses the relationship between anxiety and the bacteria that inhabit our digestive system.[1] The researchers detailed how the RNA genetic coding that occurred in the brain was different in mice whose intestines were made “germ free.” This was accomplished by giving the mice a cocktail of antibiotics that are often used in humans, which killed the bacteria in their intestines.

The research compared the mice that were treated with mice that were not. The researchers found that the RNA was different in two areas of the brain that impact worry. And as science often does, a great leap was made. Perhaps what we eat and the bacteria that inhabit us have an impact on things such as generalized anxiety disorder. Maybe all that we need to overcome generalized anxiety disorder is a change in our diet.

So now it appears that medical science is knocking on the door of another discovery that may explain why some individuals struggle with anxiety. Perhaps it’s not the stress that is eating you alive, it could be what you’re eating. Or it could be the antibiotics that you are taking that affect the bacteria that grow in your digestive tract.

This places those in biblical counseling in a difficult place. The Bible speaks about anxiety and worry in clear terms. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 not to worry about food, clothing, health, or length of life. He promises that God knows about our needs and will take care of them. Implicit in the command for us not to worry is the understanding that whatever God tells us to do, He will enable us to do. So if I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, shouldn’t I be able to choose not to worry?

Paul tells us the same thing in his letter to the Philippians, when he tells us to “Be anxious for nothing, but in all things by prayer and petition make your request known to God. And the peace of God which is beyond understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Again, if God gives us the command not to worry, shouldn’t we be able to comply?

The Bible tells us not to worry in terms that make it disobedience and thereby, sin. Medicine seems to be telling us that anxiety is a disease which may be in the control of our intestinal bacteria. So what is a counselor to do? The answer may not be as difficult as it seems.

Symptoms Do Not Make a Disease!

First, physical symptoms do not make a disease. They may accompany a disease. They may be present in several diseases. Individuals with rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, weight loss, and insomnia could have lots of specific diseases, ranging from hyperthyroidism to diabetes. They may have many of the symptoms that the DSM5 would call an anxiety disorder, but not be worried at all.

Second, individuals can have all the same symptoms and have no easily diagnosed disease. By so doing, they may fall into the DSM5 category of generalized anxiety disorder. You seem anxious, even worried, but you can’t tell me why.

Third, having the physical symptoms of anxiety does not constitute a sin. Our Lord specifically told us not to worry and what to not worry about. Food, clothing, possessions, shelter, health, and a long life were on the list. Such worry or anxiety becomes sin when we have an object that is more important to us than trusting and worshiping our Lord.

Sinful Worry Has an Identifiable Object

Sinful worry has an identifiable object and the Bible has the cure. It often starts with changing the goal from things in life, safety, and recovering our losses. That goal must become glorifying, loving, obeying, worshipping, and serving God and others. It becomes a sentence I often ask strugglers to memorize: I want to glorify God with my life more than I want to breathe and more than I want whatever I am worrying about.

Those who have the symptoms of anxiety without any known object need a thorough medical work up. Anyone in counseling needs to have a good working relationship with physicians they trust. And counselees with unexplained worry and sadness need to see one.

No Reason to Fear Truth!

Medical science marches on, and we have no reason to be afraid of any truth it might find. We hope it will discover answers to things like generalized anxiety disorder. It is hard to say at this point, but who knows, maybe it will turn out to have something to do with the currently popular phrase “gut health.” If it is determined that a disorder of the germs in our intestines are changing the way our brains function, then we can give it a specific disease name, devise testing, and curative treatment.

On the other hand, for the vast majority of worriers who have specific things they struggle with, there is an answer now. As Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart and you shall rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28).

Questions for Reflection

When you see an article in the news that deals with a subject common to medicine and counseling, how do you respond? Do you take the time to listen with a Proverbs 18:13 attitude?

When someone tells you that they are struggling with worry, what do you assume about them and their struggle?

[1] BioMed Central. “New light on link between gut bacteria and anxiety,” ScienceDaily,  24 August 2017.

Charles Hodges (MD) is a family physician practicing medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a counselor/instructor at Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries in Lafayette, Indiana.

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