Stress gets a very bad rap, but whether this biological reaction is harmful or helpful really depends on the situation. During ancient times, the stress response was actually essential for survival, as it still can be today during emergencies. Stimulated adrenals can help us react quickly in the midst of chaos and navigate our way out of dangerous situations.
But chronic worry, fear, negative self-talk, or other forms of emotional turmoil—as well as the often habitual stress of our fast-paced, always-connected, high-intensity modern lifestyles—are different animals altogether and can slowly begin to chip away at our physical wellness and overall well-being if not kept in check. Here’s what you need to know about stress, and how its relationship to your gut affects overall health.
How Stress Saved Humanity
For our earliest ancestors, mortal danger was an unavoidable fact of life. And in response to imminent threats, such as a hungry lion, their sympathetic nervous systems responded with the classic “fight or flight” reaction. Almost instantly, powerful hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flooded their bloodstreams, gearing their bodies up to either fight fiercely or make a hasty exit so they’d live to see another day.
One reason the stress response is so effective is that the chemicals it releases help divert blood flow from around the body to specific survival-oriented organs and systems—such as the heart, lungs, and muscles—so you can act in the moment with a burst of strength and speed.
Modern Day Stress: All Revved Up With No Place to Go
In today’s much physically safer world, we don’t have to deal with hungry carnivores lurking behind every tree. But the oldest, most primitive parts of the human brain can’t differentiate between an angry mother bear protecting her cubs and a traffic jam that might only make you late for work. In either case, the brain registers a threat, and the stress response is triggered.
When stress functions as nature intended, which is for brief periods and only during dire emergencies, it doesn’t harm your health. Once the danger passes, body chemistry automatically returns to normal with no lasting ill effects. Any potentially harmful chemicals released into the bloodstream are quickly metabolized during the physical exertion of fighting or running.
But when there’s no clear end to that anxious feeling (as when dealing with a high-pressure job or a difficult family member), this hormonal response may become chronic, leaving stress hormones in the blood with nowhere to go. And when you’ve got high levels of stress hormones calling the shots for extended periods, that’s when the trouble begins.
The Stress-Gut Connection
One of the major areas where blood flow becomes restricted during times of stress is the digestive system—after all, it’s not as important to digest your lunch in an extreme situation as to make sure you don’t become lunch! That’s why feeling stressed out can quickly unsettle your stomach.
Ongoing restriction of digestive blood flow brought on by long-term stress takes its toll on the gut in more significant ways than just butterflies though, by reducing microbial diversity and lowering numbers of friendly flora, thereby creating conditions that encourage undesirable strains to thrive.1,2 Additionally, the immune system (most of which resides in the gut) doesn’t receive the influx of fresh blood it needs to function optimally. Chronic stress also makes the digestive tract more permeable, as well as alters some of its basic functions.3 When the gut is compromised in this way, the body becomes more vulnerable to a wide range of unpleasant health challenges including:
Interestingly, not only does stress affect the gut—the composition of the gut microbiome also has a strong connection to our ability to handle life’s stressors.5 That’s because the brain and gut communicate constantly through the “gut-brain axis,” a complex bidirectional system of neural connections involving the central (brain) nervous system and the enteric (digestive) nervous system.
Simple Tips for Stress Management and Microbial Health
Since it’s a two-way street—stress impacts gut health and gut health impacts your ability to manage stress—let’s take a look at simple steps you can take to support your microbial makeup, so you can remain centered, less reactive, happy, and calm as you go about each day:
• Supplement: Maintain your populations of beneficial bacteria impacted by stress (and other lifestyle factors) by supplementing with a high quality, time-released daily probiotic formula that supports the gut-brain axis, such as GBX-Focus. Specialized formulas tailored for women, moms, kids, adults over 50, and even pets are available to support gut health for the entire family.
• Get Moving: Research shows that an active lifestyle improves microbial composition and diversity, so whether it’s dance, swimming, running, or something entirely different, find an exercise routine that’s fun for you and jump right in!6
• Jettison the Junk Food: Refined sugar, processed foods, GMOs, pesticides, and artificial additives harm friendly flora!7 Choosing healthy plant-based foods in their whole, natural states—as well as probiotic-rich cultured and fermented dishes—helps keep your microbes happy. Be sure to also include plenty of prebiotic foods, such as onions, bananas, and apples, whose fibers provide the perfect nutrition for probiotics so they can thrive in your GI tract. Because it’s often difficult to take in a sufficient amount of prebiotics from diet alone, it’s helpful to sprinkle an organic prebiotic powder into your favorite smoothies and soft foods.
• Embrace Mindfulness: Practices like meditation and visualization engage the parasympathetic nervous system—triggering the relaxation response, which counters fight or flight chemistry while promoting microbial health and overall well-being. Research reveals that meditation even produces changes at the genetic and molecular levels that help the mind and body recover from stress more efficiently.8 Don’t sweat it if sitting meditation just isn’t your thing though—you’ll get the same benefits from moving meditative practices like yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong.
• Make Sleep a Priority: We all know not getting enough sleep makes it harder to handle stress. But the dangers of not sticking to a regular sleep routine (and even short-term sleep deprivation) go much farther, and can actually damage the microbiome.9,10 Establishing a regular bedtime/evening routine that allows you to wind down gradually, and get the right amount of restorative sleep for your unique body, goes a long way toward keeping stress at manageable levels.
Stress in varying degrees will always be a part of life, but with the right mix of awareness and intention, you can support your system so it doesn’t have to impact your health.
1. Bailey, M. T., Dowd, S. E., Galley, J. D., Hufnagle, A. R., Allen, R. G., & Lyte, M. (2011). Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 25(3), 397-407. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2010.10.023
2. Bailey, M. T., Dowd, S. E., Parry, N. M., Galley, J. D., Schauer, D. B., & Lyte, M. (2010). Stressor Exposure Disrupts Commensal Microbial Populations in the Intestines and Leads to Increased Colonization by Citrobacter rodentium. Infection and Immunity, 78(4), 1509-1519. doi:10.1128/iai.00862-09
3. Konturek, P. C., Brzozowski, T., & Konturek, S. J. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 62(6), 591-599.
4. Giloteaux, L., Goodrich, J. K., Walters, W. A., Levine, S. M., Ley, R. E., & Hanson, M. R. (2016). Reduced diversity and altered composition of the gut microbiome in individuals with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Microbiome, 4(1).
5. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 82(12), 3649-3658.
6. Clarke, S. F., Murphy, E. F., O'Sullivan, O., Lucey, A. J., Humphreys, M., Hogan, A., … Cotter, P. D. (2014). Exercise and Associated Dietary Extremes Impact on Gut Microbial Diversity. Gut, 63(12), 1913-1920. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2013-306541
7. Shehata, A. A., Schrödl, W., Aldin, A. A., Hafez, H. M., & Krüger, M. (2012). The Effect of Glyphosate on Potential Pathogens and Beneficial Members of Poultry Microbiota In Vitro. Current Microbiology, 66(4), 350-358.
8. Kaliman, P., Álvarez-López, M. J., Cosín-Tomás, M., Rosenkranz, M. A., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 40, 96-107. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.11.004
9. Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., Green, S. J., Mutlu, E., Engen, P., Vitaterna, M. H., … Keshavarzian, A. (2014). Circadian Disorganization Alters Intestinal Microbiota. PLoS ONE, 9(5), e97500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0097500
10. Benedict, C., Vogel, H., Jonas, W., Woting, A., Blaut, M., Schürmann, A., & Cedernaes, J. (2016). Gut microbiota and glucometabolic alterations in response to recurrent partial sleep deprivation in normal-weight young individuals. Molecular Metabolism, 5(12), 1175-1186. doi:10.1016/j.molmet.2016.10.003
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.