Microbiome … it sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but it is very real and very important to your overall health. Scientists have developed this term to describe the vast ecosystem of living microbacteria in your gastrointestinal (GI) system, which includes an estimated 100 trillion living symbiotic microbial cells. This microbiome can always be found in the gut, and can also be found in places like your mouth and skin. 1
The role of the microbiome in your health is not limited to your gastrointestinal system. In fact, the trillions of bacteria are involved in just about every aspect of your overall health including digestion, immunity, detoxification, cardiovascular health, mental function, dental health, weight gain, your mood and so much more!
The proper function of your healthy gut microbiome can easily be influenced by many factors including antibiotics, illness, aging, dietary habits, stress and other lifestyle factors. If any of these factors negatively affect your body, they can change the composition of your harmonious microbiome, and that can rapidly become harmful. 2
Stress and Your Gut Microbiome
The 100 trillion (+) living bacteria in your microbiome have a mind of their own! When they want to eat sugary foods, you want to eat sugary foods. When they want deep-fried foods, you want deep-fried foods. When they want to be depressed, you get depressed … and so on. Scientists call this the “gut-brain-connection” and it is why numerous studies have shown the microbiome’s ability to influence the stress response in both humans, and animals. 3
Here are just 3 ways stress is destroying your microbiome:
1. It Damages Your Feel-Good Chemicals.
The Enteric Nervous System, ENS is a part of the autonomic nervous system of your body, and it is located mostly in the gut. Scientists have called this the “second-brain” as the microbiome has so many similarities to your actual brain. In fact, your gut is home to many of the same chemicals as your brain, including these neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine. 4
Did you know that a whopping 95% of your serotonin (the “feel good” chemical) is found in your gut – not your brain?! 5
That means if you suffer from prolonged periods of stress you may not just be damaging your gut health. Your mood could suffer too, as exposure to stress has been shown to negatively affect gut-brain interactions. 6
2. It Alters Intestinal Permeability.
You have probably heard the term “leaky,” used before, but that’s one word you don’t ever want to hear your doctor use to describe your gut. Many people suffer with a loss of strength in the epithelial cells of their intestinal walls, which leads to the aforementioned “leaky gut.” Recent research has shown that one of the effects of chronic psychological stress on the gut barrier includes an increase of intestinal permeability, which can cause leaking of the gut into your bloodstream. 7
3. It Lowers Your Immunity.
The microbiome is home to trillions of living (and dying) microbacteria, and those little buggers are your first line of defense against foreign invaders that can threaten your health. Without a happy, and balanced microbiome you would not be able to fight off common infections like a cold or the flu.
Studies have shown that when people are under stress, they have lower levels of sIgA – an immunoglobulin essential to high immunity. 8
Another study showed that relaxation exercises, on the other hand, actively increase sIgA production. Just one more reason to take a yoga class or practice relaxation breathing techniques! 9
How Can I Reduce My Stress Levels?
Stress is no joke. It can deplete the strength of your immune system, damper the health of your skin, destroy good circulation, and even increase your risk of mortality. One study showed that high amounts of stress were associated with increasing the risk of premature death by 43%. 10
Reduce your stress with these 3 tips:
1. Cut Out Alcohol.
Most people turn to drugs or alcohol when they feel stressed in attempts to feel better. However, these substances are only a temporary fix, and can quickly add to your problems, only increasing stress overall.
Get Support. There are plenty of people, online groups, and social communities available to help you get through stressful times.
2. Take Good Care of YOU.
The fast-paced world that we live in today can take a lot out of you! Most people report not only being stressed during the day, but actually experiencing chronic stress levels throughout their daily lives. But you don’t have to let stress drag you down! Always try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and always take a timeout for a break if you feel overly stressed. It’s worth it! 11
3. Stress is a useful response that originated with our paleolithic ancestors.
As part of the fight-or-flight survival response to environmental threats, stress is not a reaction that should last for more than a few minutes. However, many people today experience chronic stress – bouts that can last days, weeks, or even years. This type of stress results in alterations to the microbiome and thus a brain-gut connection that can send you the wrong signals. So, follow these 3 stress-busting tips to keep all of your little buggers happy, and healthy!
Dr. Cary Nelson
Want more health tips? Read More:
2. Yu-Jie Zhang, Sha Li. Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2015 Apr; 16(4): 7493–7519.
3. Winnie-Pui-Pui Liew, Jia-Sin Ong. Gut Microbiome and Stress. Volume 28 of the series Microbiology Monographs pp 223-255.
4. The New England Journal of Medicine. Mechanisms of Disease. Franklin D. Epstein, M.D., Editor. 1996.
5. Doe-Young Kim, M.D., Michael Camilleri, M.D. Serotonin: a mediator of the brain–gut connection. The American Journal of Gastroentrology. 2000.
6. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.
7. John R. Kelly, Paul J. Kennedy. Breaking down the barriers: the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and stress-related psychiatric disorders. Front Cell Neurosci. 2015; 9: 392.
8. Renate Deinzera, Christian Kleineidama. Prolonged reduction of salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) after a major academic exam. International Journal of Psychophysiology. Volume 37, Issue 3, 1 September 2000, Pages 219–232.
9. Laura A. Pawlow, Gary E. Jones. The Impact of Abbreviated Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Salivary Cortisol and Salivary Immunoglobulin A (sIgA). Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. December 2005, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 375–387.
10. Abiola Keller, Kristin Litzelman. Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality. Health Psychol. 2012 Sep; 31(5): 677–684.
11. Coping with Stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. Accessed February 23, 2017.