Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "fight or flight" response. This response is designed to help us deal with immediate threats, such as a predator or if a car is about to hit us. Stressors in modern life tend to be chronic and ongoing, such as work and financial pressures. Chronic stress can disrupt the gut-brain axis and negatively affect gut health.
Stress, Gut Microbiota and Gut Barrier Function
When we experience stress, it can alter the composition and diversity of the gut microbiota. This leads to an increase in harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria. This imbalance, known as dysbiosis, can lead to various gut health issues, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and inflammation.
The integrity of the gut barrier can also be compromised by stress. Besides lining the intestinal wall, the gut barrier serves as a protective barrier against harmful substances such as toxins and bacteria. When the gut barrier is compromised, it can lead to what is known as leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which toxins and bacteria leak into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response and inflammation.
Your Good Bacteria
Good bacteria play a critical role in maintaining gut health. For example, some beneficial bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, which nourish the cells that line the gut and support a healthy gut barrier. However, stress can lead to a decrease in good bacteria in the gut, which can have negative effects on our health. When these bacteria are depleted, it can lead to gut inflammation and other gut health issues.
In addition, stress can affect the production of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and GABA, which are crucial to mood and anxiety regulation. These neurotransmitters are produced in the gut by beneficial bacteria, and when their production is compromised, it can lead to mood disorders.
Focusing on Gut Health to Reduce Stress
While stress affects our gut health, we can also focus on our gut health as a way to reduce stress. Here’s our four ways:
- We can increase the number of beneficial bacteria in our gut by consuming probiotic-rich foods or taking probiotic supplements. Some of these bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA, and by maintaining a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut, we can support our mental health and reduce stress levels.
- By supporting the gut barrier through the consumption of prebiotic-rich foods such as fiber, we can reduce inflammation and the impact of stress on the gut.
- By consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as green vegetables, berries, whole grains, and fatty fish, we can reduce inflammation and promote gut health.
- Exercise has been shown to improve gut health and reduce stress levels. Studies show that regular exercise increases gut microbial diversity, which means a greater variety of types of beneficial bacteria found in the gut. A more diverse gut microbiota is considered to be a healthier microbiota.
Want to learn more about gut health? Be sure to read our other articles and watch the videos in our Learning Lab.