Understanding the Effects of Stress on the Gut Microbiome
Stress is the body’s way of responding to changes in taxing demands. It is an important and necessary component of staying adaptive to the environment. In the short term, it can motivate and help with focusing energy to improve performance, especially in coping with threatening situations. It is when stress is experienced over long periods of time (chronic stress) that it becomes damaging to the body. With well-known links to several chronic diseases, in addition to playing an integral role in the health of the gut, it certainly deserves our attention if we want to achieve optimal health.
Understanding Stress Response: Causes & Effects
Whatever the stressful trigger, whether environmental, psychological or physical, the body responds with a similar cascade of physiological changes known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It begins with the amygdala sending out a signal of distress to the hypothalamus where the nervous system is alerted to provide a quick burst of energy. The adrenal glands begin to pump out adrenaline (epinephrine), a hormone that causes the heart to beat faster, rapid breathing and increased focus and sharpness of the senses. At the same time, the body releases glucose into the bloodstream to ensure fuel needs are met. After the initial trigger, a secondary component of the stress response called the ‘HPA axis’ occurs which releases the hormone known as cortisol.
While this quick, built-in reaction has increased the likelihood of survival, the problem is that unlike our ancestors who activated this necessary system only in acute life or death situations, nowadays the system is firing off at alarmingly high rates. Chronic stress by way of responding to work deadlines, exams, traffic or overburden of responsibilities fires the system in the same way it would if we were running for our lives from a dangerous animal!
Although every individual reacts differently to stress, several studies have linked the hormonal and physiological changes of the chronic stress response to significant changes including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases and mental illness. Stress also affects the health of the gut microbiome.
The Link Between Stress and Gut Health
The ‘gut-brain axis’ is a bi-directional communication system which involves the central and enteric nervous systems, linking both the emotional and cognitive centers in the brain with peripheral intestinal functions within the gastrointestinal system. This gut-brain connection links exposure to chronic psychological stress with an array of alterations on the gastrointestinal tract.
Links between the interplay of stress and the gut microbiome have shown that bacteria may respond to stress signals from hormones known as catecholamines within the body, which then directly affect the growth and virulence of the pathogenic bacteria. By tipping the balance toward negative bacteria, these changes may lead to dysbiosis in the microbiome.
How Does Stress Affect the Gut?
Other complex physiological changes in the gastrointestinal tract a result of stress can lead to changes in different functions that affect bowel movements, gastric secretions, gut motility (the stretching and contraction of the muscles that move food along the digestive tract), mucosal permeability and barrier function, visceral sensitivity and mucosal blood flow. These changes can highly influence the development of gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers as well as food sensitivities.
All this aside, the direct effects of chronic stress on energy levels and immunity are omnipresent. With the hormonal changes as a result of long term stress leading to imbalances of healthy, immune boosting bacteria in the microbiome, the ability of the immune response is weakened. In fact, there is scientific evidence indicating the people who experience psychological stress are more prone to developing colds and other infections as compared to other less-stressed peers. The overburden of stress may also affect how easily we are able to absorb and break down the necessary nutrients required for optimal energy.
Can Probiotics Help our Bodies Respond to Stress?
Along with balancing important factors like reducing sugar and alcohol consumption, eating plant-based foods rich in prebiotic and fibers, eating foods with natural probiotics (fermented foods), taking a high-quality probiotic can also support the body (and the microbiome) to better respond to stress. When choosing a probiotic, it’s important to ensure it has the science to back up the claims it makes. Bio-k+ contains bacterial strains that work together synergistically and has been proven effective in peer-reviewed clinical studies.
Becoming resilient to stress in order to reduce the negative impact on the body is important. This, of course, will be different for everyone, but some examples of ways to reduce mental stress include mindfulness, yoga, journaling, talk therapy, physical exercise, rest and spending time in nature. This again needs a tailored approach, yet ensuring a healthful diet that helps to balance and proliferate the beneficial bacteria is one area of primary importance!