More than a gut feeling: stress and the microbiome
Did you know that your gut microbiome can influence stress? This week we delve into the research about the gut-brain axis, and how we can use this knowledge to manage our stress response.
This week is International Stress Awareness Week. The latest figures tell us that 74% of UK adults experience stress to the point where they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.
As a gut health dietitian, I'm particularly interested in how we can support mental health and wellbeing by maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. In fact, I spent the last four years studying the gut-brain axis for my PhD. So this week, I want to shine a light on the latest research about how the gut microbiome can play a role in reducing or managing stress:
🤯 We can transfer stress via the gut microbes
A lot of what we know about the gut-brain axis initially came from studies in mice. What researchers found was that if you transfer the faecal gut microbiota from a stressed mouse into a normal mouse, they begin to display stress, anxiety, and depressive behaviours too. The reverse was also true. Transferring the gut microbiota from a healthy mouse to a stressed mouse had a protective effect! These studies were the first to show the strong and direct effect that the gut microbiota can have on stress, mood, and behaviour.
🥬 Feed your gut microbes to deal with stress
In the past 10 years, we've seen promising research in humans showing that we can improve our responses to stress through diet. An article published last week found that people consuming a "psychobiotic" diet - focusing on prebiotic fibre, legumes, and fermented foods - reduced their stress levels compared to those who didn't change their diet.
🧠 SCFAs may be the key to reducing stress response
So how does changing our diet impact stress? What we now know is that when you consume prebiotic fibres - like chicory root, leek, onion, garlic, bananas - your beneficial bacteria produce anti-inflammatory substances called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs can interact with your brain via many different pathways, including the vagus nerve, immune system, and hormones. A recent study showed that when healthy volunteers were given SCFAs (released directly into the large intestine), they showed reductions in cortisol (a stress hormone) and lower perceived stress.
🚧 The gut-brain axis is a two-way street
When we are feeling anxious or stressed, this often exacerbates gut-related symptoms too, including stomach pain, diarrhoea, bloating, and constipation. Practising meditation, yoga, or mindful movement are important strategies to keep our gut microbes happy too.
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