Gut health could influence how you handle stress, new study claims

Updated
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Research has already uncovered a link between gut health and mental wellbeing, but a new study has suggested that a diverse gut microbiome could improve our ability to handle stress.

The findings, by researchers at UCLA and published in Nature Mental Health, revealed that maintaining a healthy digestive tract hospitable to “good” bacteria may better equip the brain to deal with the emotional and mental pressures life may throw at you.

For the study, scientists surveyed 116 people about their resiliency, which included assessing the ability to trust in one’s instincts and have a positive acceptance of change.

Participants were separated into two groups, one for those who ranked high in resilience and one for those who ranked low.

As well as taking MRI scans of the subjects’ brains to analyse functions related to emotional regulation and cognition, the team also collected stool samples to determine what microbes were living in the gut.

Study authors noticed the emergence of two patterns in those who were more resilient to stress – namely that the activity in their microbiome was linked to reduced inflammation and also to improved gut barrier integrity.

Arpana Church, a neuroscientist at UCLA’s Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center who led the research, explained to NPR.org that the gut barrier absorbs nutrients and keeps toxins and pathogens from entering the bloodstream.

When that becomes more permeable, or “leaky,” the resulting inflammation acts as a stress signal to the brain that all is not well.

Woman holding her stomach. (Getty Images)
New research has uncovered a link between gut health and the way we deal with stress. (Getty Images) (Getty)

Researchers believe the results further indicate the idea that what we eat may not only influence our gut microbiome, but also our brain health.

"The study discovered that our ability to handle stress is connected to both our brain and gut microbiome," Bex Prade, a clinical nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner, told Yahoo Life UK.

"Certain features of the brain and gut bacteria can make some people more resilient to stress, which helps with managing psychological symptoms, regulating emotions, and improving cognitive functions."

Prade says the research highlighted that bacterial gene activity is key in identifying resilience, showing the important role of the microbiome in mental health.

"Improving gut health can enhance resilience and overall mental wellbeing," she adds. "Potential ways to strengthen this resilience include dietary modifications, adding prebiotics and probiotics to the diet, or other clinical interventions such as using treatments like faecal transplants. These methods aim to support a healthy gut and strong gut barrier."

Prade says that overall the study emphasises that the brain and gut microbiome work together to help us better manage stress and improve our mental health and there are a few ways this can happen.

Brain-gut-microbiome axis: The gut and brain communicate through a complex network known as the brain-gut-microbiome (BGM) axis. "This connection influences our stress response and emotional regulation," Prade explains.

Microbiome impact on stress: Prade says a healthy microbiome helps maintain a balanced mood and reduces stress. "Imbalances in gut bacteria (dysbiosis) can lead to increased stress and anxiety."

Gut barrier integrity: A healthy gut barrier prevents harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. "Stress can weaken this barrier, but a balanced microbiome supports its integrity, reducing stress-related damage."

Neurotransmitter production: Gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, which play a crucial role in mood regulation. "A healthy microbiome ensures adequate production, helping manage stress."

Immune system regulation: The microbiome helps regulate the immune system, reducing inflammation that can be triggered by stress. "Lower inflammation levels can improve stress resilience."

(Getty Images)
A diverse gut microbiome could help improve our resilience to stress. (Getty Images) (Getty)

For those wanting to further explore the link between the gut and our ability to deal with stress, Prade suggests trying the following:

Eat a whole foods diet: Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, organic where possible. "These foods are high in fibre, which feeds beneficial gut bacteria," Prade explains.

She also suggests consuming fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and low sugar kombucha. "These foods contain probiotics that help maintain a healthy gut microbiome," she adds.

Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day. "Proper hydration supports the mucosal lining of the intestines and the balance of good bacteria in the gut."

Limit sugar and processed foods: Prade suggests reducing intake of high-sugar and highly processed foods. "These can promote the growth of harmful bacteria and disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome."

Include prebiotics: Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that feed beneficial gut bacteria. "Foods rich in prebiotics include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, and chicory root."

Consider probiotics: Probiotic supplements can help increase the population of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

Avoid unnecessary antibiotics: Prade suggests only using antibiotics when absolutely necessary, as they are well known to disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut.

Spend time outdoors: Exposure to natural environments can increase the diversity of your microbiome. "Activities like gardening, hiking, and spending time in nature can be beneficial."

Get regular exercise: Physical activity promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and overall health. "Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week."

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