Today, the biological effects of stress are a large threat to our health and well-being. And they may be significant enough to prompt you to slow down, take a breath, and momentarily put down your smartphone.
Chances are in today’s topsy-turvy world, you have experienced that uncomfortable feeling of anxiety and dread. And you may even feel it on a daily basis. Stress is the new normal. And because of that, meditation, digital detoxes, and various forms of self-care have become de rigueur in order to cope with the demanding environment. Many of us just ignore signs of stress or brush off that heavy feeling in our guts as a natural reaction that we shouldn’t dwell on.
While these reactions may be natural, we should be more concerned with the tangible effects stress has on us. That gut-wrenching feeling — the literal pain in our stomach from stress — may be an indicator that there is something serious happening deep down in our core.
Effects Of Stress On Our Gut
The fight-or-flight reaction of stress is not always a bad thing. It’s a natural instinct that has helped us survive for centuries when faced with danger. And stress will always be a part of a healthy, functioning body. A certain amount of stress also helps us thrive and grow.
However, there comes a time when stressing over minute details of your everyday life does more harm than good. Most of the effects of stress appear to be solitary and fleeting. But, there are dangerous long-term consequences that can be left for the body to deal with.
If left untreated, stress can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and even heart disease. Some of the long-term effects of stress are related to hormonal disruptions and sleep dysfunction. Several studies have found that missed or interrupted sleep can result in debilitating, chronic conditions.
Stress And The Microbiome
One area impacted by stress that is often overlooked is the microbiome. Small and large stressors can add up to be ultimately destructive due to what happens to the bacteria in our gut. Our microbiome is composed of trillions of these friendly bacteria that make sure our digestive system works smoothly. And this directly affects our overall well-being. Like a sudden storm brewing dangerous riptides, unexpected stress throws our little bacterial friends overboard.
Researchers at Oregon State University have studied many of these bacterial communities to find the ways in which they are affected by stress. In their 2017 study, they found that the changes resulting from stress “lead to transitions from stable to unstable community states.” Once thrown into an unstable state, these organisms struggle to get back on board and, in turn, act out in unpredictable ways.
What’s more, everyone’s microbiome is such a unique community. So it’s nearly impossible to predict the different ways that they will behave when shaken up. The researchers explain this as the “Anna Karenina Principle,” which refers to a famous quote from the novel of that name that says: “All happy families look alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So while we now understand that any unhappy microbiome is a dangerous one, the individual effects are not as easy to predict or diagnose.
The way humans consciously and subconsciously react to stress varies so greatly. This makes it difficult to predict how any one person will respond to a specific stressful situation. For example, you may have sudden panic attacks while someone else may suffer from insomnia. Additionally, our diet and our environment, which varies greatly from person to person, affects the ultimate way stress will affect you.
It All Stems From The Gut
What is becoming clear, however, is that at the root of each of these responses is an unhealthy and unpredictable gut microbiome. According to the American Psychological Association, issues with our gut microbiome could manifest as increased appetite, decreased libido, or even something much more immediate and more obvious such as panic attacks that lead to hyperventilation.
Whether a specific symptom is literally felt in the gut or elsewhere in the body, such as in the head during a migraine, it’s likely that it all leads back to a disruption of the gut microbiome. This is due to the transaction between the brain and the gut during perceived stress.
The vagus nerve is the system that links the brain down to the digestive tract. It works by simultaneously sending and receiving messages up and down the body. When your gut is healthy and in order, your brain can sort through stressful situations more easily. On the other hand, for digestion to properly occur, you need to be in the “rest and digest” phase, not the fight or flight or stress phase.
Stress And Nutrition
Looking at the foods we put into our body can make a difference in how our gut responds. Since diet directly affects the gut and everyone’s gut is just a little bit different, it can be difficult to follow generic diet guidelines. That’s where understanding the specific makeup of your gut biome can be really beneficial.
Fortunately, there are now tests available that can analyze the bacteria in the gut and provide you with recommendations for what you should actually be eating based on your own personal microbiome’s needs. It works by identifying and analyzing how the strains of bacteria in your gut produce either nutrients or toxins in response to the food you eat.
Rob Pellow, of Viome, explains:
We all now know that diet is one of the most important parts of our overall health and that what we put into our bodies manifests in just about every other internal system we have. So if diet matters so much, the next step is to decide which one is best for you.
The basic principle behind gut biome testing recognizes our differences. Understanding what’s in your gut is the healthiest way to decide what you should and shouldn’t be eating.
In 2018, the testing company Viome conducted a study in which 550 participants had their microbiomes sequenced and were then given a specific diet to follow. This happened all while continuously wearing glucose monitors. The findings showed that blood sugar responses varied greatly from person to person. For example, bananas and whole wheat bread showed a drastic increase in the glucose levels of certain participants. But, showed the exact inverse in others.
The benefit of individualized testing is that we can have better information to guide us in our food choices. It also explains why some diets work for some people but not for everyone.
Eating the right food for your microbiome can help you respond to stress better. Just as we know that stress and the state of the microbiome are directly linked, Pellow agrees that our stress levels and hormonal responses can certainly be calmed if the microbiome is in check and not inflamed. He emphasizes that when we eat right, we can drastically alter the effects of stress. Even if those stressors are not directly related to food.
Kristen is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, PA.
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