The Gut-Brain Connection: How Eating to Fuel Your Gut Can Curb Stress

Have you ever noticed that as your stress levels rise, you start to feel it in your gut? You may notice a change in appetite, feelings of nausea, or even digestive upset like bloating, gas, and diarrhea. This occurs because the gut and brain are directly connected in the body by the vagus nerve. 

This nerve, which is the cornerstone of the gut-brain axis, sends signals between the gut and brain letting the other know how to feel and how to react. Not only can this connection explain why you can often notice gastrointestinal upset during periods of high stress, but it provides insight into how you can fuel your gut to help better manage stress. 

How the Gut and Brain are Connected

When you think of gut health, you may think of digestive health, but the gut can impact far more than just digestion. “98 percent of serotonin, the hormone that makes us ‘feel good’, is produced in our gut. When our gut health is compromised, the ability to create serotonin is also compromised, which can lead to feelings of sadness, fatigue, insomnia, irritation, and low self-esteem,” explains Elizabeth Gunner, RDN

The gastrointestinal tract is lined with hundreds of millions of neurons as well as various strains of bacteria, and the communication between them is critical to health as well as mood. “When there is a disruption in our gut, the neurons in our gut respond, which leads to changes in the bacteria living in our gut,” adds Gunner. 

And an altered balance of gut bacteria can impact our bodies ability to produce and utilize vitamins, minerals, and hormones—all of which play a role in the regulation of mood and stress.

The Role of Bacteria in Mood and Stress

Research has found that specific strains of bacteria can have a direct impact on mood, anxiety, and stress. Having a balance of these beneficial bacteria in the gut may go a long way in improving overall mental health. 

“Research has found strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium like L. casei, L. acidophilus, L. casei, L. helveticus, B. adolescentis, and B. longum are particularly beneficial in regard to mood, stress, and anxiety,” explains Lacy Ngo, MS, RDN, author of The Nourishing Meal Builder

Science shows the dual combination of bacteria Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum helps to reduce the two stress-induced gastrointestinal symptoms: abdominal pain and nausea. And a more recent study found these bacteria may offer beneficial psychological effects as well, which is exciting news for anyone who suffers from anxiety.

How to Add More Beneficial Bacteria into Your Diet

The specific probiotic strains that benefit mood can be found in supplemental form, but you can also find them in food. “Strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can be found in miso, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables, and some brands of yogurt,” shares Ngo. 

Although consuming more beneficial strains of bacteria can be helpful for mood and stress, adding probiotics to your plate isn’t the only area to focus on. Prebiotics—the “food” that gut bacteria utilize to stay alive and healthy—are also key. And luckily, these aren’t hard to find.

Prebiotics are essentially the type of fiber that feed gut bacteria and can be found in many fibrous foods including beans, onions, asparagus, bananas, and oats. Balancing your plate with foods containing both prebiotics and probiotics may go a long way in helping to regulate stress and mood.

What You May Want to Avoid

Just as certain dietary choices may improve stress and mood, others may worsen them. “Try limiting ultra-processed foods, refined grains, foods with high levels of added sugars, and fried foods, as diets high in these foods promote inflammation, contribute to poor gut health, and in some cases, have been linked to mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and stress,” explains Ngo. 

And it isn’t just food choices, but also our eating behaviors that can have a negative impact on stress. “Mindless eating, quick consumption of food, and feelings of guilt or shame while eating can all increase feelings of stress, and in turn result in gastrointestinal issues,” adds Gunner.

The 5-Step Plan to Eating Away Stress

If you’re ready to take action to improve mood and stress through food, these five simple steps can help:

  1. Eat at least one probiotic-rich food or drink daily. Think: miso, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables, and yogurt.
  2. Fill at least half your plate with fiber-rich foods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
  3. Limit your intake of added sugars which may have a negative impact on the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut. Aim for less than 10 percent of total calories to come from added sugars.
  4. Practice slowing down and eating mindfully. Make sure you take the time to really notice and enjoy your food. Sit down at a table, put your food on a plate, and eat it slowly with intention.
  5. Say good-bye to guilt. There are no “bad” foods or “good” foods. Just focus on balance. The more you shift your thinking away from what you shouldn’t eat or can’t eat, the less guilt and stress you will feel with eating. And that shift can play a big role in improving both your mood and your overall relationship with food.

Fitbit Sense can also give you deeper insight into your personal stress levels. For example, the Stress Management Score tool helps you understand if your body is showing signs of stress on a daily basis. Your score ranges from 1 to 100—a higher number means you’re showing fewer physical signs of stress. It’s calculated based on three metrics: responsiveness (how much strain your body is under), exertion balance (impact of your activity), and sleep patterns (how well you’ve been sleeping). Learn more about Fitbit’s state of the art stress management experience here.

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