Does stress affect gut bacteria? Yes, says an RD

Can stress affect gut health?

Does stress affect gut bacteria? It sure does–a lot. Nutrition is really a relatively new field. It’s always growing and evolving. We’ve learned a lot in the last few years on how and why stress affects your gut health (and therefore your immune system). Here are some simple ways to mindfully help both be healthy.

Stress and your gut bacteria/health

How does your brain perceive stress? A little structure in your brain called the amygdala is responsible for helping you experience emotions. It’s constantly trying to gauge our level of stress and let the HPA-axis know to adjust accordingly. Yes, stress could mean job loss. Or a crazy job in general. Or a break up. Any kind of emotional event. But it’s also biological. Which means your brain can perceive stress from things like pain or hormone imbalance or even what you’re eating. Maybe you’re dieting too much and not eating enough. Maybe you’re intermittent fasting, and it’s not right for you. Or you cut out carbs. You could be exercising too much. To your body, all of these count as stress.

Stress is tough on the whole body, starting with gut health. Any kind of stress–emotional or physical–does affect your gut bacteria and gut health. It will slow down your digestion and limit digestive acids. This means you won’t break down foods as well and you might have trouble keeping your microbiome in good shape. Eventually, you might end up with one or several imbalances. You could have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), fungal infections you can’t seem to get rid of, skin issues, insulin resistance, and even weight gain from it.

Understanding what stressors you can change and what you can’t

There are so many stressors we can’t control. And it will always be that way. So what can we control? We can look at our stress levels and make changes. We can reshape our mindset to let go of diet culture and allow ourselves the freedom to eat. To feed our bodies. Our thoughts. Our exercise. And how we’re nourishing our bodies.

We all love control so much. That’s why restriction can make us feel safe. If you feel like it’s really hard to loosen up on over-exercise and strict diets, you’re not alone in that. I hear clients say, “Wellll, I need this diet. I need to eat this way because I feel good when I follow the rules.” But when you fall off the wagon and shame yourself for it, how do you feel then? The guilt and shame creates stress, and the cycle just keeps going.

Ways to mindfully help you undo how stress affects gut bacteria

Now that we’ve answered “does stress affect gut bacteria?” and talked about how stress is physical and emotional, how can we improve our stress so we can feel better and stop having so many symptoms and issues?

Think about how you’re nourishing your body

Stress from dieting can affect your gut health- pumpkin soup and toast

This includes under- and over-nourishing. Most of us have been taught to tell our bodies what to eat. Not the other way around. We may or may not be choosing the best things for us and for our stress bucket. We all have times where we eat emotionally. And that’s okay. But if are consistently not listening to your body’s cues, you won’t know how some foods affect you. Does that mean you should cut everything out? No. It’s a sign you need to heal your relationship with food, you’re able to look at how some foods affect your body. Not restriction. Not elimination. But noticing.

Look at the intensity and frequency of your exercise

Stress of over exercise can affect gut health- woman doing intense workout

We all know exercise is good for you and can lower long-term stress. But high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Cross Fit, and long cardio sessions are fine for some but aren’t right for every single person’s body at every single moment in time. Ask yourself: in this season of my life–or even today–is my exercise choice serving me right now? Or is it creating more stress for my body that could harm my gut health?

Ask if you feel like you 100% need caffeine to “make it”

Coffee and espresso can affect gut health- espresso machine on kitchen counter

If you feel like you need coffee to get up in the morning, something’s not right. Your body should be awake in the morning. If this is a constant problem, look into how you’re sleeping. Maybe you have sleep apnea. Or your circadian rhythm is off. You could have estrogen dominance. Or, you could be dealing depression, and that’s messing with levels serotonin in your body. Serotonin is important for feeling good and also for how you sleep. (And it helps make melatonin, which you need to fall asleep.)

Regular coffee heightens feelings of stress and your body responds. We often don’t realize this until we back off it and then go have some more. Reducing caffeine helps with functioning of the adrenals.

In periods of high stress, I will drink (and recommend) Four Sigmatic Coffee. It lets me still have my routine and enjoy a warm cup. But it doesn’t drive my adrenals more crazy than they are and raise cortisol. If you wake up and you feel like you need coffee to wake up, something’s not right.

Honestly look at your sleep patterns

Woman sleeping in bed

Sleep is huge for our bodies and stress levels. Our circadian rhythm is important to gut microbiome. The reason is that our gut and brain are always in communication. We call this the gut-brain connection. When you don’t get enough sleep, whether it’s from stress-related or other causes of insomnia, that communication gets interrupted. Which means quality sleep is directly tied to your gut health.

Personal help with rebuilding and balancing gut health after stress affects gut bacteria (it’s not just probiotics)

Improving how stress affects your gut bacteria and gut health isn’t any one thing. It’s not probiotics. Or prebiotics. It’s not just fermented foods or adding in yogurt. We need to look at a lot of different lifestyle factors and what’s going on in your body to create lasting change. A big one is stress. We also want to look for specific micronutrient deficiencies, pathogens, and hormones and how they’re playing a role. These aren’t tested that often but can give us clues as to what’s going on in the body and what dietary changes we need to make.

Wendie Taylor, RDN, LD, MBA
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