The Link Between Stress and Gut Health

Stress. It’s a struggle for all of us at one time or another, but did you know that recurrent stress, that heightened sense of urgency, anxiety, fear or even adrenaline that is often present in your fast-paced modern lives can chip away at the foundations of your health. In particular, it can chip away at your microbiome, with research showing that ongoing stress can negatively affect the trillions of healthy bacteria in our gut resulting in subpar gut health that impacts your whole system from mood and immune system through to metabolism.

The great news is that understanding how to support your friendly microbes as you do your best to manage or dissipate your day-to-day stress levels can help deliver a healthier and more resilient body.

Understanding Your Gut

The gut is the epicentre of your body, now being referred to as our “second brain”, it is home to trillions of microbes that all work in harmony with your body’s cells to keep you thriving. Did you know that 80% of your immune system lives within the inner ecosystem of your gut, thus influencing almost every aspect of how you feel each day.

When your gut is healthy, it contains a balance of about 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria. The good bacteria in your body work to keep you feeling and functioning at your best by:

  • Supporting your immune system
  • Digesting your food optimally
  • Supporting mental clarity
  • Balancing your hormones
  • Normalising glucose levels
  • Supporting a healthy gut barrier
  • Regulating inflammation
  • Warding off pathogens and disease-causing microbes

However, many everyday aspects of life deplete your good bacteria; highly processed foods, antibiotics (those found in medicine and our food supply), everyday hygiene habits (we’re too clean for our own good), environmental toxins, the natural aging process and ongoing stress.

How Stress Hurts Your Gut And Your Health

In the simplest of terms, when you are experiencing elevated levels of stress 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 digestive and immune health challenges in tandem with episodes of heightened stress.

One of the key services that 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 chronic long-term modern-lifestyle stress is compounded over time it can erode the good bacteria put in place to protect you from the effects of stress. This makes you more susceptible to the type of inflammation that is tied to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Not to mention the negative impact that eroded good bacteria has on the production of serotonin, the feel-good and sleep hormone.

To add insult to injury when your good microbes are weakened or damaged due to stress, the integrity of your gut lining can be compromised and this can manifest in a plethora of health issues including susceptibility to illness, exhaustion and nutritional deficiencies.

What You Can Do To Re-Build And Maintain A Healthy Gut Microbiome

Fortunately, our microbiome is malleable and we can work to re-build it, while also working to reduce our stress levels by:

Optimizing our diet:  Focusing on giving our bodies a whole foods diet with little processed foods and a lot of prebiotics (specific fibres found in foods that nourish healthy bacteria and help them thrive).

Taking a daily probiotic supplement:  A probiotic taken consistently can replenish your good gut bacteria population. Take one that targets several strains of bacteria. I like Bioceuticals Ultrabiotics or Nutralife Probiotica. I recommend taking it at night before bed.

Make movement a priority:  Research indicates that our microbiome is healthier and more diverse when we are physically active. Pick a type of exercise you like and do it each day, be that walking 30 minutes, or participating in pilates, barre, yoga or gym workout. Do what you love and not only will your stress levels be reduced but your microbiome will benefit too.

Before taking an antibiotic ask your GP to confirm via pathology lab test that you a) have a bacterial infection and b) the strain of bacteria. This will minimise the times you need antibiotics and the amount of time you are on an antibiotic (because you will be taking the right one). Thereby, protecting your gut bacteria from the impact of antibiotics which wipes out the good with the bad.

While it is unlikely that many will be able to do away with their day-to-day stress by stepping out of the typical modern lifestyle scenario of job, parenting, household management and caring for aged parents. Making a choice to prioritise your health and wellbeing by actioning some of the above recommendations could greatly reduce the impact that today’s chronically stressful lifestyles are having on your body.

This article forms part of the Reboot and Rebalance program run by Nereda Merrin (next program starts 1st April). Visit our Nutrition Page for more information.