It’s a struggle for all of us at one time or another, but did you know that recurrent stress — the heightened sense of urgency, anxiety, fear, or even adrenaline that is often present in our fast-paced, modern lives — can literally chip away at the foundation of your health and affect your long-term wellness?
Just thinking about all of life’s obligations and to-do lists can leave your stomach in knots — and for good reason. The burden of too much stress directly affects your most recently discovered “organ”: your microbiome.
Research shows that ongoing stress can negatively affect the trillions of healthy bacteria in your gut, and subpar gut health can have a depressing effect on your entire system.
The good news is that understanding how to support your friendly microbes as you do your best to manage your day-to-day stress levels can help you experience healthier and more fulfilling days.
As the epicenter of your body, your gut is home to trillions of microbes that all work in harmony with your body’s cells to keep you thriving.
In fact, 80% of your immune system lives within the inner ecosystem of the gut, affecting almost every aspect of how you feel each day.
When your gut is healthy, it contains a solid balance of about 85% good guys and 15% bad guys.
The good bacteria in your body work to keep you both feeling and functioning at your best by:
However, many aspects of everyday life can deplete your good bacteria without you even knowing, like highly processed food, antibiotics (both as medicine and in our food supply), everyday hygiene habits, toxins in the environment, the natural aging process, and as we’ve mentioned above, ongoing stress.
Put simply, when you’re experiencing elevated stress levels, your brain goes into flight-or-fight mode, which can impact the blood flow to your gut. This is why it’s common to experience a lull in digestive and immune health in tandem with episodes of heightened stress.
Interestingly, one of the key services your bacteria provide is helping to signal the proper response to the brain to cope with elevated “stressors” so that they don’t affect the rest of the body.
But when compounded over time, chronic, long-term stress can erode the good guys put in place to protect you from the effects of…you guessed it, stress.
Looking deeper, the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology published a recent study showing that consistent stress negatively affects the amount and diversity of your good gut flora.
And, when it comes to gut health, diverse and plentiful are the goal. Otherwise, your whole ecosystem suffers, which can affect the way you look, feel, and even how you act.
Recent studies have even suggested that a microbiome influenced by stress can lead to the type of inflammation that is tied to mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
To add insult to injury, the harmful effects of the stress response can weaken your gut’s intestinal lining against invaders — making you more susceptible to illness, exhaustion, and nutritional deficiencies.
You see, your “gut barrier” keeps unfriendly microbes and pathogens from entering your bloodstream.
When your good microbes are weakened or damaged due to stress, the integrity of your gut lining can become compromised and this could manifest in a plethora of health issues.
Fortunately for us, stress is manageable and the microbiome is malleable — meaning that if we can take daily action to improve our microbial health while we work to reduce our stress levels, we might be able to find the right answers to living, looking, and feeling our best.
When comprised of abundant numbers of well-nourished beneficial bacteria, your microbiome helps to optimize the body’s response to stress, and also keeps stress’ negative effects on your overall health in check.
So, how do your friendly gut flora keep stress in line?
For one, your gut bacteria produce important mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin (the “happiness” chemical) that communicate with the brain and are key when it comes to coping with mental turmoil.
Other healthy bacteria in the gut work to help lower cortisol, the notorious “stress” hormone. In one study, medical students preparing for an important test drank probiotic-rich fermented milk or placebo for eight weeks prior to the exam.
Students given the fermented milk showed lower cortisol levels, increased serotonin levels, and fewer GI symptoms typically associated with stress and anxiety than students in the control group.
What’s more, human studies show that consuming prebiotics (the indigestible fibers that feed probiotics so they can thrive) also increases the amount of neurotransmitters that affect stress levels.
In other words, both supplementing with good gut bacteria and making sure they are well fed helps mitigate stress and its negative effects on your system.
It’s easy to make poor dietary choices when you’re overwhelmed or running on empty, but that’s all the more reason to focus on giving your body nourishing foods that fuel the foundation of your health.
Because your microbiome changes relatively quickly based on the foods you eat, it’s important to aim for a diet high in whole and plant-based foods with an emphasis on prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are to probiotics what fertilizer is to a garden — they are specific fibers found in many foods that nourish our healthy bacteria and help them thrive.
An effective probiotic, taken consistently, can replenish your populations of good bacteria. Make sure you choose one that provides several different targeted strains of bacteria that can survive your harsh stomach acid to reach deep within the GI tract where they can make their home and get to work for you.
The research is clear; microbiomes are healthier and more diverse in those who are physically active. And it has to be said that one of the of the best ways to decompress from a stressful day is to exercise. Even walking 30 minutes a day can help melt the stress and it makes a real difference when it comes to your microbial health!
Not only does quality, plentiful sleep help reduce stress and keep you feeling your best physically and emotionally, but research shows that it benefits your gut bacteria as well. In fact, any disruption to your innate circadian rhythms (from lack of sleep or jet lag, for example) can throw off the rhythms of your gut microbes, leading to a depleted microbiome.
Do your best to get a solid 7–9 hours of sleep every night — making sleep a priority will pay you back in dividends when it comes to long-term health and vitality.
Studies show that contrary to our approach over the last century, we actually benefit from exposure to dirt and bacteria. The microbes from the soil train our immune system to work properly. So, get outside and garden, play with the dog, or go camping for a healthy dose of dirty fun.
And when you’re done, opt to clean up with water and natural soap, rather than antibacterial products that indiscriminately wipe out all your good bacteria.
Antibiotics in our food and as medicine are detrimental to our colonies of good bacteria: they wipe out the good guys along with the bad. Do your best to avoid meat, fish and dairy products that may contain antibiotics and check with your doctor to make sure antibiotics are indeed necessary before taking them.
Putting first things first and taking care of yourself is top priority.
Whether it’s saying no more often, becoming a minimalist, heading to a meditation retreat, or simply taking the time to appreciate, laugh, and savor the now with the people you love most, finding ways to support your mental and emotional health is paramount to both living life congruent with your desires and to optimizing your gut and overall health.
Though sometimes it seems the norm in today’s world is to feel continually stressed, disconnected, tired, and frazzled, we must remember that we are the authors of our own lives and we can make the conscious decision to slow down and find our balance.
And I can tell you from personal experience, that it’s better to make this decision proactively than to wait for health issues that force a reevaluation.
Occasional stress is inevitable, and it can even help you define and navigate your path on the way to a healthy, fulfilling life. Fortunately, as you journey through all of life’s ups and downs, you can choose to prioritize your health, well-being, and happiness by living in harmony with your microbes and making decisions that support your entire being, inside and out.
1. Konturek, P. C., Brzozowski, T., & Konturek, S. J. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of physiology and pharmacology : an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 6, 591–599.
2. Miller, A. H., & Raison, C. L. (2015). The role of inflammation in depression: From evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nature Reviews Immunology, 16(1), 22–34.
3. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology doi:10.1128/aem.04134–15
4. Yano, J., Yu, K., Donaldson, G., Shastri, G., Ann, P., Ma, L., . . . Hsiao, E. (2015, April 9). Indigenous Bacteria from the Gut Microbiota Regulate Host Serotonin Biosynthesis. Cell, 161(2), 264–276. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.02.047
5. Cryan, J. F., & O’Mahony, S. M. (2011). The microbiome-gut-brain axis: From bowel to behavior. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 23(3), 187–192. doi:10.1111/j.1365–2982.2010.01664.x
6. Clarke, S. F., Murphy, E. F., O’sullivan, O., Lucey, A. J., Humphreys, M., Hogan, A., . . . Cotter, P. D. (2014). Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity. Gut, 63(12), 1913–1920.
7. Thaiss, C., Zeevi, D., Levy, M., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Suez, J., Tengeler, A., . . . Elinav, E. (2014). Transkingdom Control of Microbiota Diurnal Oscillations Promotes Metabolic Homeostasis. Cell,159(3), 514–529.
Originally published at medium.com