Examining the Relationship Between Stress and Gut Health

Feeling stressed out? We’ve all been there.

Maybe you’re anxious about an important deadline at work looming over your head. Perhaps you’re feeling the weight of the responsibilities and expectations that come with family life. For one reason or another, we all struggle with trying to navigate through the minefield of stressors and pain points in our everyday lives. But what if I told you that a major source of your stress is actually coming from your gut?

The brain and the gut share an important relationship. We may not think about it all that often, but our bodies occasionally remind us. When was the last time you made a “gut decision”? Remember when you’d get butterflies in your stomach? What sights, smells, or experiences make you nauseous? Our guts and brains are directly intertwined. In fact, our gastrointestinal tract has an acute sensitivity to emotion. Neurotransmitters from our brain constantly send signals to and from our guts, causing the activities and responses in our digestive tract to have biological effects that can go largely unnoticed or unidentified.

Inside our gut lives a vast community of microorganisms called microbiota. Our microbiota consists of tens of trillions of bacteria, some good and some bad. It plays a vital role in the effectiveness of our immune system and our ability to fight illness. Keeping our microbiota balanced and functioning properly is a huge proponent of long-term health and wellness, but new studies show that gut health may also have a profound impact on mood and anxiety.

Researchers at UCLA have discovered a correlation between microbial interactions and the brain’s response to emotional stimuli in healthy humans. Forty women were enlisted to partake in the experiment, and were divided into two groups based on the makeup of their respective microbiota. One group of 33 had a higher number of gut bacteria called Bacteroides, and the remaining 7 women had a higher number of a different type of bacteria called Prevotella. The researchers put the women through a series of brain-imaging exercises and found that each group had differing neurological responses that yielded specific emotional and sensory reactions.

Essentially, gut health can have a direct impact on your mood and behavior. A healthy microbiota with the right balance of bacteria and a fully functioning immune system will promote both physical and mental wellness, while an unbalanced gut could very well lead to the stress and anxiety that you may be feeling. 

There are many ways to try to combat stress. Some people like to meditate and practice breathing techniques, while others exercise or listen to music. If you’re feeling a debilitative, long-term anxiety that you can’t seem to shake, the source may not be work or family troubles. It might be your gut composition. Take steps to heal that one part of your body that you may have been ignoring. Mending the relationship between your brain and your gut could go a long way to maintaining both mental and physical health.

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