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Stress, the Gut Microbiome, and Your Health

Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, which influences your health in many ways – it controls how you respond to infections, it helps you digest dietary fiber, it affects your weight, it influences the health of your gut, it helps control blood sugar – and the list goes on.

The gut microbiome can also play a major role in mental health. Unique combinations of gut bacteria can alleviate stress, anxiety levels and depression, but certain combinations can also make things worse. How do they do this?

The Second Brain. The gut is known as the second brain, housing millions of neurons that interface with the gut, letting the body know that nutrients are entering the body and to prepare for digestion and absorption. The gut can signal to the brain (and vice versa) messages like “get ready to stop, I’m feeling full!” through the vagus nerve, which acts as a highway of communication. Through this highway, the bacteria in our guts can also communicate with the brain.

A Great Relationship Gone Bad. When you’re under pressure and feeling stressed, your gut also responds. Your digestive processes shut down and you might get abdominal cramps or sudden bowel movements. The second brain, your gut, is acting up. Likewise, the gut microbiome also becomes chaotic – the bacterial communities are no longer living happily together and shift to dysbiosis, or an “imbalance”. With gut bacteria responsible for so many basic physiological processes, you can imagine the consequences of a perturbed gut microbiome.

A Two Way Street. While stress can affect gut bacteria, gut bacteria can also influence anxiety and stress. In fact, the impact of stress on the gut microbiome is similar to eating a really fatty meal, and some research show that diets high in fat creates a certain gut microbiome associated with increased anxiety-like behavior in laboratory animals. Chronic stress can also make you stress-eat, especially of foods rich in fats and sugars, which further causes dysbiosis in your gut microbiome. You can see that this can perpetuate a vicious cycle.

What should you do about this? During times of stress, being mindful (or at least trying!) to keep a nutritious diet that can contribute to a healthy gut is one place to start. Instead of grabbing fast food, try a variety of whole foods which can aid in healthy digestion and reducing inflammation, such as foods containing probiotics (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut) and high-fiber and/or prebiotic foods (oatmeal, peas, bananas, berries). For ideas on how to eat for stress relief, click here to receive a free Stress Busting Recipe booklet.

Dr. Linda May-Zhang has over 10 years of research experience in nutrition, chronic diseases and pharmacology. She has published over 20 peer-reviewed academic papers in scientific journals. She is also a science writer with a passion for educating the lay public.

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