Could Stress Be As Unhealthy As Junk Food For Your Gut?

If you’ve cleared your cabinets of processed foods but your stress level is constantly a 10 out of 10, it may be time to rethink your get-healthy strategy. Last year, researchers found that when female mice eating a healthy diet were exposed to stress, their gut microbiome—the trillions of microorganisms found in the digestive tract—began to resemble the microbiome of mice on an unhealthy diet.

Although the impacts of those changes aren’t clear, a growing body of research suggests that an unhealthy balance of gut bacteria (like that found in the mice on a high-fat diet) could play a role in exacerbating stress-related conditions like depression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

“The proposed chemical pathways are fairly complex,“ says Arizona-based physician Natasha Bhuyan, MD. “We suspect that stress can cause changes to blood flow to your gut, food moving through your gut, or even how your gut absorbs food. With this research indicating a shift in the gut microbiota, it’s clear that stress can have long-term consequences on your health.”

5 Ways to Combat Chronic Stress

Stress is going to happen whether you like it or not. But stress management is somewhat within your control, says Erica Matluck, ND, NP, a naturopath and nurse practitioner in New York and California who specializes in digestive problems and other chronic issues. The key is to learn coping strategies so stressors don’t take over your life and ravage your health. Here are five.

Focus on your breath. Slow, deep breathing is a great tool to moderate the nervous system,” says Matluck. “It sends a message that you’re safe and your survival isn’t threatened.” Try Fitbit’s Relax feature for some help. It can guide you through a two- or five-minute session.

Talk it out. “It’s often so hard to see our own self-destructive or self-sabotaging thoughts—those thoughts that keep us in fight-or-flight,” says New York-based nurse practitioner and health coach, Victoria Albina, NP, MPH. “Working with a professional listener, like a therapist or health coach, can help you shift your thoughts.”

Write it down. “When thoughts rattle around in our heads without any outlet, stress continues and can multiply,” says Albina. “By journaling, we can get the stressful thoughts and feelings out of our hearts and minds, bringing back order, calm, and peace—a much better and more efficient place from which to work.” And it doesn’t require a huge time commitment: One study found that university students who journaled for about 15 minutes every night for a week experienced reduced bedtime worry and stress, increased sleep time, and improved sleep quality.

Eat pre- and probiotics. Consider probiotics—living microorganisms found in fermented foods (like yogurt) that contain living cultures—the good guys in your gut. Prebiotics are the non-digestible carbohydrates, found in foods like leeks and asparagus, that feed these good guys and help them thrive. Together, prebiotics and probiotics can help ease inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, which supports balanced brain chemistry and can can reduce the experience of stress, says Albina.

Cut yourself some slack. “When you’re hard on yourself about not managing stress, you’re feeding back into the cycle that caused your stress to be elevated—and frankly, being hard on yourself never got anyone anywhere,” says Albina. “Try being compassionate and kind and see where that can get you.” Research has shown that committing to a regular meditation practice (30-minute sessions once a week for eight weeks) can help inspire compassion.

“Stress-reduction takes a multifaceted approach,” says Bhuyan. “The results feel subtle, but with regular mindfulness, you’ll soon notice that project deadlines don’t worry you as much or your boss doesn’t stress you out like before. If you’re not sure where to start, it’s a great idea to see your primary care provider and come up with a stress-reduction plan that’s tailored to you.”

23 Comments   Join the Conversation

23 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Here’s another one:
    If your current job has changed their structure to one that is micro-managing to the point that people are failing where they once succeeded, and those in charge are not seeing the impact of the micro-managing to their employees, find a new job.

  • Great pieces of advice , however the will power is only to heal everything.Therefore it is important to have strong will power and determination.Just to add brief walk in the morning , gardening and networking with like minded people helps alot to reduce the stress which i personally have felt.

  • Prayer and meditation are what work for me. Yes, I have added probiotics an avoid processed foods as much as is possible, but the only thing that turns my mind from all the “issues” of life and recenters me is talking to God and leaving my problems at His feet.

  • There is loads of evidence out there to suggest a significant amount of our serotonin is produced in our gut. If we look after our gut health, we increase the amount of serotonin that reaches our brain and in turn, feel less stressed and better able to cope. When we are under significant stress our gut does not work as it should and we don’t produce the serotonin we need.

    • Hmmm. ‘Unhealthy high fat diet’ fed to mice. I thought the trend these days is fat is important and it’s the sugar, processed carbs and even too much unprocessed carbs that disrupt the gut microbiome.

  • I find that , along with meditation, and a sensible regular eating habits can work wonders. As it has already been suggested above, jotting down the causes of stress seems to work perfectly.

  • I am with the American Institute of Stress. I am very interested in what you have to say. Please tell me more. Dr Ron Rubenzer. Mayo Clinic Writer. Your well-being is my commitment.

  • I have had chronic gut issues most of my life. I have a healthy lifestyle, avid walker, swimmer, no alcohol, lowfod map diet for healthy diets. Stress gets my gut every time. I am getting ready to go on a three week trip to Eastern Europe, Amsterdam and London. My doctor advised meditate five times a day for two minutes. My Fitbit watch has a relax button on it for two minutes inhale and exhale program. It’s wonderful! I’m using it all the time and it’s my new best friend

  • In the past week I nearly had a heart attack, but my strict diet I am in helped to escape the extreme challenge, thanks to all advice and nutritional benefits of natural products and excersize.

  • Stress can be managed by making simple adjustments in your life. When you think of your job as stressful, well, it will be. Jobs are a challenge that we accept for money. Find ways to enjoy your job, free time, family, no matter how they may be. Listen and avoid opinion. Look at the good side of things.

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