Let’s face the facts: stress is here to stay. Modern lifestyle sets the stage, with high-stress careers, lack of sleep, constant connection to social media, environmental pollution… the list is long. Although some stress is good, serving as an internal motivator for growth and personal achievement, chronic and overwhelming stress wreaks havoc on the body. You’re looking at some serious consequences, like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mood disorders.
The brain and digestive system are intimately linked. So closely, in fact, that many experts say it should be viewed as one system. The gut is often referred to as “the second brain,” and contents of this second brain can profoundly affect the first. Although we’re just scraping the surface, new research hints at ways of managing stress by first taking care of the gut.
When you think about it, the human gut is pretty remarkable. It is the only organ to host its own enteric nervous system, allowing direct communication from the gut to the brain. Does the phrase “gut feelings” come to mind? The intestinal tract provides a cozy home for a wide array of microbes. From bacteria and archaea, to viruses and fungi, over 100 trillion microbes make up each distinct microbiome.
Microbes living in the gut make a big impact on health. They are responsible for:
- Digestion and metabolism,
- Emotional control and mood stability,
- Extraction of vitamins and nutrients from food,
- Immune system response, and
- Maintaining integrity of the gut wall.
Gut bacteria also have the ability of creating hormones and neurotransmitters. Beneficial bacteria, like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, produce GABA, a neurotransmitter that relieves anxiety and improves sleep. Other strains produce serotonin, often called the “happy hormone” for its moodcortisol-boosting abilities. Certain microbes work to lower cortisol, the disruptive stress hormone responsible for our fight-or-flight reactions. It is when there is an imbalance of good and bad microbes that you may run into some trouble. What provokes this imbalance? Chronic stress.
The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. Stress can alter the composition and function of the microbiome, reducing good gut bacteria and paving the way for invasion by the bad guys. When bad bacteria colonize the gut, there is significant disruption to the enteric nervous system. Some strains break down gut-brain communication, decreasing the ability to balance emotion. Other strains release pro-inflammatory factors that have been scientifically linked to social avoidance and, you guessed it, stress. It becomes a vicious cycle of psychosocial stress and poor gut health.
Remember that gut-brain communication is a two-way street. Just as stress can cause an imbalance of good and bad microbes in the gut, composition of the microbiome can impact the ability to handle stressful situations. An upset intestinal tract may be the cause or the aftermath of stress. What you eat affects your gut, and eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates promotes overgrowth of bad bacteria and fungi. This imbalance sets the stage for what is known as “leaky gut syndrome,” the breakdown of the intestinal integrity resulting in a state of widespread and chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation not only increases the perception of stress, but is tied to anxiety, depression, arthritis, Chron’s disease, food sensitivities and autoimmune disorders (among many, many more).
Here’s the bottom line: we can’t always control the stress in our lives, but we can take control of our microbiome. Eliminate foods that wreak havoc on the gut, like sugar, alcohol and processed foods. Adopting a plant-based diet filled with fruits and veggies allows good bacteria to flourish, leaving little room for harmful microbes to make themselves at home. Supplementing with healthy strains of bacteria is another game-changer, as studies demonstrate that probiotics help decrease cortisol production and improve mood, cognition, and response to stress.
A healthy gut means a healthy mind. Ready to make some changes? Go with your gut on this one.References:
Stress effects on the body. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
A psychology of the human brain–gut–microbiome axis. Social and Personal Psychology Compass, 11 (4). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12309, , , & . (18 April 2017).
Carpenter, S. (September 2012). That gut feeling. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling.aspx
Galland, L. (1 December 2014) The gut microbiome and the brain. Journal of Medicinal Food, 17(12): 1261–1272. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4259177/