Gut Health

Stress Changes the Gut: Here's 4 Natural Ways to Restore Balance

By Aimee McNew

Stress impacts health in many ways: weight gain, sleepless nights, racing heart, anxious thoughts. But stress can also alter the bacteria in the gut, changing the balance of beneficial to negative. These microbiome changes can influence how the immune system works and can lead to long-lasting effects.

The microbiome needs a constant influx of good bacteria to provide balance, as well as prebiotics—the healthy fiber that feeds good bacteria—to ensure that the ratio of good to bad bacteria stays positive.

Boosting gut function isn’t a simple matter of changing the diet, as you’ll see. The gut and the brain are intimately connected through the vagus nerve, and the gut is even referred to as the “second brain” because of how strongly it can influence the brain’s function, and vice versa.

Managing, and getting ahead of, the effects of stress needs to be a multifaceted approach that addresses the mental and physical symptoms of stress, but that also takes into account the need for gut balance to decrease the mental effect and the ongoing ability of stress to suppress or overstimulate the immune system.

How Stress Changes the Gut

When someone is facing something that makes them nervous, a first date or a public speaking engagement, it’s become accepted that one’s stomach can get butterflies or feel upset. For some, these moments of stress can lead to constant digestive discomfort, sweating, heart palpitations, or tremors.

But not everyone experiences stress so acutely. While just a single stressful exposure can change the gut microbiome, stress can be an ongoing, chronic situation that simply dulls the ability to enjoy life or creates a constant mental burden. When this becomes a regular life experience, the digestive system changes in some significant ways that we aren’t always aware of.

Stressful experiences, whether individual or constant, change the way that the body digests food, moves food through the digestive tract, and how it is absorbed and used in the body, and not for the better. Gut bacteria, which exists in the trillions within the human microbiome, also directly changes in response to signals of stress messengers.

The gut cannot escape the impact of the brain. When there is no stress and all is calm, digestion is optimized and gut bacteria flourishes. But when stress is present, nerve fibers and neurons in the intestinal lining receive messages from the brain that change everything. This is because the entire body has a built-in system to mobilize against stress, for defense. It’s often referred to as “fight or flight,” but in situations of stress where one’s physical safety isn’t actually threatened, it’s hard to turn off this inborn nature. Yet this stress response changes how the gut absorbs nutrients, increases the body’s ability to feel pain, and puts all other operations that aren’t essential to fight or flight into a downgraded mode.

Constant stressful exposures can lead to the suppression of certain good types of gut bacteria and can allow other types to thrive. These disruptions and changes in dominant bacteria leave the gut (and entire body) open to bacterial dysregulation, pathogenic infection, and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, IBD, food allergies, autoimmunity, ulcers, GERD, and even bacterial overgrowth.

Natural Ways to Restore Balance to the Microbiome

We can’t always change the stressful situations in life, but finding better coping mechanisms to downplay the stress effect in the body can promote improve the way the body handles stress, even mentally and emotionally.

There are several natural ways to support good gut bacteria while also mitigating the effects of chronic or acute stress.

Probiotics

Not all probiotics are created equal, although it’s likely that some are always better than none. Still, research shows that certain strains are better at restoring balance in the gut during times of stress while also helping to address other stress-related factors, like anxiety, depression, and weight gain.

The strains that are best at providing mental health and stress-busting effects include:

  • Bifidobacterium longum
  • Bifidobacterium breve
  • Bifidobacterium infantis
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus
  • Lactobacillus helveticus

Short-Chain Fatty Acids

The gut produces some substances in response to taking in nutrients, like dietary fiber. The daily recommendation for fiber intake is at least 25 grams, but most Americans eat closer to eight grams (or less) daily. Fiber feeds good gut bacteria and allows them to make short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are shown by research to downgrade the physical effects of stress in the body.

You can boost your gut’s ability to make SCFA by eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, particularly artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, bananas, potatoes, apples, carrots, and oranges.

CBD Oil

Stress has a far-reaching influence and the microbiome is no exception. CBD oil is utilized in the body via the endocannabinoid system, which has receptors in the gut. Stress unchecked can suppress the way the bacteria in the gut functions, and can alter the way the intestinal barrier works, leading to bacterial imbalance.

CBD oil helps to calm the physical effects of stress and anxiety in the body, and thanks to the endocannabinoid receptors in the gut, it can also lead to improved gut function. Instead of only taking a probiotic and waiting for bacterial changes to occur, using CBD oil to reduce the physical effects of anxiety or stress can lead to faster results and more immediate relief from the uncomfortable symptoms of chronic gut imbalance.

Yoga

While it might not seem directly connected, yoga is a proven therapy for stress, anxiety, and even gut disorders like IBS. Stress causes gut problems, and in turn, gut problems perpetuate stress. Yoga can help to downgrade the physical effects of stress in the body and the brain, leading to improved digestion and balanced intestinal function, including the microbiome.

Anxiety, depression, headaches, and fatigue can all go hand-in-hand with intestinal or gut disorders, and yoga helps provide balance to mental health, breathing, muscular tension, and core health, all of which can have a direct or indirect impact on digestive function and intestinal health. The beneficial effects are seen with regular practice, with some noted as early as a few weeks and other more significant improvements appearing after three months of regular practice.

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