Gut health and stress? Is there a connection? There absolutely is. This is everything you need to know about stress and gut health.
Chronic stress is so common today, that we shouldn’t even call it ‘stress’ anymore. It’s just life. It’s how we live, and we experience it day-in and day-out through work, relationship, health, food and our environment. We know that stress can have a huge affect on mood and general health, but what about how stress affects our gut? Here is everything you need to know about stress and gut health.
But first, let’s back up and talk about the basics.
Microbiome. Gut health. Probiotics. What are these buzz-words?
Health experts are uncovering how our microbiome and gut health has an impact on our overall health. Countless studies have indicated major correlations between common diseases and poor gut health, including allergies, autism, depression and anxiety, and inflammatory diseases.
Our microbiome is made up of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that coexist with us. Amazingly, we have more microbes in our body than human cells! Many of these microbial bacteria reside in our gut, and they play an amazing role in our health. From supporting brain health, immunity, digestive health, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, blood sugar management – our gut bacteria can largely impact our overall wellness.
Our digestive tract is filled with these amazing bacteria that support our health. If our digestive tract isn’t functioning correctly, or if these bacteria aren’t being nourished appropriately, there’s an opportunity for disease to develop. As discussed, illness can show up as symptoms such as digestive distress, allergies, mood disorders and more.
How stress alters our microbiome
We know that our microbiome is a varied community of beneficial bacteria that supports our health in a variety of different ways. It’s important to support our microbiome for overall health, but stress can have a negative impact on our beneficial bacteria.
Stress has the ability to increase gut permeability. Leaky gut is a phenomenon where the cells lining our intestines no longer sit tight together, and have very small spaces between them. This allows foreign particles to pass through the intestines directly into the bloodstream, causing an inflammatory reaction. We know that stress can increase leaky gut through inflammation, but can also alter the complexion of gut bacteria, causing more leaky gut and inflammation. Leaky gut has been linked to several diseases including autoimmune conditions, allergies, intolerances, and other inflammatory conditions.
The science behind stress and cortisol
The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is involved in creating the varied stress hormones that the adrenal glands secrete when one is stressed out. This includes cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, is produced under periods of long-term or chronic stress.
High cortisol levels and gut health
High levels of cortisol can have a few damaging effects on the gut:
- Cortisol negatively impacts the mix of beneficial and harmful gut bacteria.
- Cortisol increases leaky gut by triggering release of chemicals from cells.
- Cortisol triggers immune cells to produce more inflammatory cytokines (chemicals) which increase inflammation in the gut.
So if you find yourself chronically stressed and experiencing inflammatory bowel symptoms, leaky gut-related disease or other gut-related discomfort, take a step back and assess your stress. Are you managing stress appropriately? Are you able to reduce or adjust your stress response? How can you reduce your cortisol levels so that you can take care of your gut?
Even more interestingly – studies have shown that our gut bacteria may have an affect on our stress response by affecting how the HPA axis responds to stresses. Yes – stress can affect your microbiome, which in turn can affect your response to stress! Talk about a never-ending cycle.
By ensuring that we have a healthy microbiome and continuing to nurture our gut bacteria, we may be able to affect how we respond to stress.
But without focusing on our gut health, cortisol and stress has the ability to damage our gut bacteria, increase leaky gut, and trigger inflammation in our digestive system and in our body. This further challenges the health of our microbiome, as well as our overall health, and can lead to inflammatory conditions including depression, anxiety and even autoimmune conditions.
How can probiotics help?
As we’ve discussed, probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can support our health in a variety of ways, including managing inflammation, improving digestive health, and even affecting our stress response.
Taking care of our gut health is key to supporting our body, especially during times of stress. By managing inflammation levels we support the health of our good gut bacteria, which can improve the body’s response to stress.
Our microbiome can be nurtured by eating probiotic-rich foods, taking probiotic supplements (I recommend this one), and eating the necessary prebiotics to help your probiotics thrive.
Fermented foods can have a large impact on our gut health and microbiome.
Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, yogurt, and other popular ferments contain many strains of beneficial bacteria. The fermentation process grows these bacterial strains, and when we consume these foods, the beneficial bacteria can take up residence in our intestines – to further support our overall health.
Eating fermented foods on a daily basis can be a great way to improve gut health. Vary your ferments so you are able to get a variety of different strains of bacteria into your body. This helps ensure you have a varied microbiome of many amazing, healthy strains. Typically the more strains the better.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are foods that feed our probiotics. By definition, prebiotics are non-digestive fibre that comes from the food we eat. Our body cannot digest these fibres, so they act as food for the beneficial bacteria residing in our gut, aka our microbiome.
The “Standard American Diet’ is largely devoid of prebiotics, which is one of the reasons why so many individuals have a poor microbiome and as a result, poor health.
Prebiotic rich foods include:
- Raw garlic
- Raw or cooked onion
- Cooked onion
- Raw asparagus
- Chicory root
- Raw dandelion greens
- Raw jicama
- Under-ripe bananas
Use raw garlic in salad dressings, raw or cooked onions in savoury dishes or roasted vegetable dishes. Raw asparagus makes a great snack, as does jicama. Under-ripe bananas aren’t as sweet as ripened bananas, but go great in smoothies or as a snack with almond butter.
Love your gut and it will love you back
Supporting your gut health with probiotic-rich foods and prebiotics is a great way to support gut health. Other dietary choices to consider include: low-inflammatory foods, including lots of vegetables, healthy fat and lean proteins. These foods will support the health of the overall body and contribute to good gut health.
I also want to make a special call-out to using collagen for gut health, especially if you have leaky gut (I love this brand). Collagen is a powdered supplement, derived from beef proteins, that helps build connective tissue including skin, nails and hair. Our digestive tract is lined with epithelial cells and connective tissues that can benefit from collagen. By taking a collagen supplement, you are giving your body the raw materials to support healing a damaged gut lining or leaky gut. Other amazing, unrelated benefits? It makes your nails and hair stronger! I’ve been using collagen for a couple of years now and it’s one of my non-negotiable supplements.
Bottom line: Support your microbiome and reap the benefits of a healthy life. Reduce your stress, and you will reduce the assault on your gut and bacteria.
Gut health = overall health. If you love your gut, it will love you back.
Calderone, Julia. “30 Mind-Blowing Facts about the Microbes That Live inside of You.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 6 Nov. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/human-microbiome-facts-bacteria-yeast-intestines-2015-11/#microbes-keep-your-vital-organs–such-as-your-brain-digestive-system-and-immune-system–working-properly-8.
Perlmutter MD, David. Brain Maker. Little, Brown and Company, 2015.