Whether you were in a car wreck when you were young, experienced the death of a loved one, or simply went through a very difficult childhood, chances are that you'll never forget that memory. It's only natural to remember the big events in your life, good and bad––but recent research indicates that you're not the only one they've made a lasting impact on.
A new study out of UCLA (along with others) indicates that the composition of your gut microbiome can be indefinitely impacted by intense, traumatic experiences due to the innate wiring between the gut and the brain.1 While we’ve known that the gut can impact the brain, now we’re learning more about how the brain can potentially interact with the gut microbiome based on severe stress.
To find out more about how trauma impacts microbes, researchers studied those with abdominal discomfort and digestive issues, both with and without a history of early life trauma.
When they looked closer, scientists found that those who had a history of trauma in their early lives had distinctly different gut microbiomes from both those who had the same digestive issues but no early life trauma, as well as people with neither digestive issues nor trauma.
And while it appears that these changes happened in response to traumatic stress, researchers noticed something striking: they didn't reverse themselves after circumstances changed.
The scientists conducting the study believe that the changes in the gut microbiome made in response to trauma could potentially last a lifetime based on the stress-gut-brain connection.
Stress and the Microbiome
Your gut microbiome basically runs the show when it comes to your health and well-being, as it’s comprised of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that carry out various bodily functions (like producing neurotransmitters and protecting your body from harm). The way you look, function, and feel all hang in the balance of your microbes.
The UCLA study indicates that severe stress (such as childhood trauma) can affect the microbiome, and lead to people experiencing longer, more significant issues with their digestion than people who have the same underlying digestive problems, but no trauma.
What’s more, individuals who’ve endured trauma in their early lives tend to have a weakened immune system due to the effects of ongoing stress. While the body is pretty good at dealing with isolated incidences of stress, long-term stress is a different story.
One particularly challenging effect is the change in the gut microbiome. Ongoing stress creates conditions in the gut that lower microbial diversity and encourage the growth of inhospitable bacteria. If left unchecked, your gut bacteria can become very unbalanced, leading to issues throughout the body, and in the immune system in particular, as 80% of it is located in the gut.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The trauma-induced changes in the gut microbiome appear to also have a lasting impact on the development and functioning of the brain. Those in the study with altered microbiomes also had differently-shaped brains, including notable differences in the regions of the brain associated with sensory and emotional processing.2 While more research is needed to fully understand the connection between trauma, the gut microbiome, and brain development, this does line up with what we already know about the connection between the brain and the gut.
Other studies have shown how your gut and your brain are in constant communication with each other via your vagus nerve, which runs from your brain all the way down to your abdomen.3
What's more, the health of your brain affects the health of your gut, and vice versa. When your gut microbiome is in balance, it can actually help keep you feeling good by signaling your body to produce important neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin, and oxytocin, as well as reducing your levels of cortisol, which is associated with feeling stressed.
In light of this connection, it becomes increasingly clear just how important it is to maintain the balance of your gut microbiome when you're faced with other factors that can cause a hazardous uptick in stress, such as trauma and its aftereffects.
How to Support Your Gut Microbiome If You’ve Dealt With Trauma
Trauma is an incredibly personal experience, and recovery is going to look slightly different for each person. But there are a few things that we know are beneficial to nearly everyone, regardless of the type or degree of trauma involved. Some of it's common sense: having someone to talk to, keeping on top of at least basic self care, and incorporating movement into your days is almost always helpful. Similarly, supporting your gut can be one of the most effective ways to support your disposition and overall feelings of health and joy.
• Set an intention of self-care
Healing is a process and can sometimes take (many) years. As you’re moving through each day, know that your gut microbial balance struggles when you're actively carrying stress. Do what you can to incorporate intentional stress reduction into your self-care routine––it’s good for your brain and also the trillions of bacteria who support you each day.
Try going for a walk outside—it's a good way to diversify your gut microbiome, plus it's been shown to improve your mood and support healthy stress levels.4 Another idea is to implement a new gratitude practice: research indicates that people who keep track of the things they're grateful for not only feel better, they may even live longer!5 You may even want to try incorporating a meditation practice into your day. It's not only good for your mental health, it has a number of positive effects on your immune system, the quality of your sleep, and even your gut health.
If nothing else, try reducing your screen time. Spending a lot of time on your devices not only affects your stress levels, it also has an impact on other things that can leave you feeling less than your best, including the quality of your sleep and how well you're able to concentrate.
• Stay connected.
Isolation is incredibly harmful to both your mental and physical health, so make sure that you're staying connected with your social circle. Unfortunately, given our modern Western lifestyle, it's becoming easier and easier to become isolated without even realizing it. So if you've been waiting to return that text, try out that local farmer's market, or join that class at the gym, consider this your official invitation: your gut and your outlook will thank you for it.
• Get your probiotics and prebiotics.
When you're dealing with significant changes in your gut microbiome, it can be a good idea to go straight to the source with your support. Try repopulating your gut with beneficial bacteria by using a premium probiotic like PRO-15. The targeted bacterial strains it contains are great for the aspects of health commonly affected by trauma, including your mood, energy levels, and immunity.
While you're at it, consider including more prebiotic foods in your diet. With so many bacteria living within your gut, you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed in order to stay healthy. Prebiotic fibers act like a fertilizer for the good bacteria, breaking down into the nutrients that they need to thrive as you begin restoring bacterial balance to your gut.
The more we learn about the gut, the more it becomes clear that having a healthy balance of bacteria is the keystone for all kinds of health. Whether you have a history of trauma or experience stress-related digestive issues, supporting this incredibly important ecosystem is one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being.
While you can't change the past, you can do a lot to offset any changes that have occurred in your microbiome and create a foundation for a healthier future.
1. Labus, J.S., Hollister, E.B., Jacobs, J., Kirbach, K., Oezguen, N. . . . Mayer, E.A. (2017). Differences in Gut Microbial Composition Correlate with Regional Brain Volumes in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Microbiome 5(49). doi: 10.1186/s40168-017-0260-z
2. Menon, V. (2015) Salience Network. Brain Mapping: An Encyclopedic Reference 2. Stanford, CA: Elsevier Press.
3. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., . . . Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055.
4. Taylor, M.S., Wheeler, B.W. White, M.P., Economou, T., Osborne, N.J. (2015). Research Note: Urban Street Tree Density and Antidepressant Prescription Rates—A Cross-sectional Study in London, UK. Landscape and Urban Planning 136. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2014.12.005
5. Dewall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Pond, R. S., Kashdan, T. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence. Social Psychological and Personality Science,3(2), 232-240.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.