The relationship between stress and the gut microbiome – what you can do

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the gut microbiome and the role it plays in our health. Trillions of microbes make up the gut microbiome, mostly bacteria but additionally yeasts, parasites, viruses and protozoa.

Having a healthy balance of these microbes helps our bodies to feel and function at its best.

The gut microbiome influences immune function, nutrient absorption, hormone balance and inflammation. Therefore when an imbalance of these microbes occurs, the impact is felt throughout the body. There are several things that can cause an imbalance including medications, processed foods and environmental toxins.

Research is also showing the impact stress has on the microbiome and consequently the rest of the body.

How stress impacts your gut microbiome

The gut and the brain are connected (I’ve discussed the idea of the gut as the second brain with Dr Pran Yoganathan recently). The gut and the brain are constantly sending signals to one another. 

Ever felt nauseous before giving a presentation? Or pain in your gut when you’re super stress? These are symptoms of the gut-brain connection. Amongst the many roles of the microbiome, is the signalling from the gut bacteria to the brain to cope with a stressful situation. When stressed we enter our sympathetic nervous system, also known as flight-or-fight. As a result blood flow is diverted away from our gut and towards our arms/legs. However when stress is chronic the relationship between the gut and brain is compromised. Research has found chronic stress has a negative effect on the amount of good bacteria in our gut, causing an imbalance. There are also links between stress and GI symptoms such as heartburn, loose stools and cramps.

Listen: Dr. Ron Ehrlich interviews Dr. Robert Rountree. Post continues after audio.

The impact on your health

A balanced microbiome is essential to dealing with stress. Therefore having a reduction in the good bacteria can leave you more susceptible to illness, exhaustion and nutritional deficiencies. An imbalance also affects the integrity of the gut lining, leaving you more susceptible to infection. Put simply, chronic stress causes an imbalance in the gut microbiome which affects its ability to function as it should and negatively impacts your health.

How can you support your gut microbiome to improve your stress response?

It’s all about feeding the good bacteria and managing stress. While probiotics and various supplements can aid in providing extra support, it is essential to focus on the foundations of health first.

  • Optimise your diet – focus on consuming a diet high in vegetables. The fiber from these veggies will provide your bacteria with the food it needs to thrive. Incorporating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi will bring in more good bacteria to the gut. Eating a balanced diet is key to a healthy microbiome and a healthy body.
  • Move regularly – research shows direct links between a healthy microbiome and people who are physically active. In addition to the role exercise plays in reducing stress. Find a sustainable exercise plan that works for you.
  • Prioritise sleep – good quality sleep reduces stress and is linked to improving beneficial gut bacteria. Having a sleep routine is key and is something I focus on in my book and on the podcast
  • Get dirty – don’t get caught up in disinfecting and using antibacterial products. Over doing it on these products wipes out all bacteria and disrupts the balance. Additionally spending time gardening and exposed to dirt is beneficial to the gut microbiome. Just avoid using harmful pesticides or chemicals in the garden.
  • Find time to relax – scheduling in regular relaxation and stress management techniques is key to reducing stress and supporting your gut microbiome.

Listen: Dr. Ron Ehrlich interviews Niraj Naik. Post continues after audio.

To sum it up

Our understanding of the gut-brain connection is increasing. New research is highlighting the many links between the two and ways in which this connection can influence our health. Research is even getting down to the specific strains of bacteria that influence our stress response. I think the important thing to remember is the importance of reducing chronic stress and focusing on a holistic approach to health.  For some more reading on stress, here are 3 health tips to live a life less stressed