When Stress Rules the Gut

Mar 13, 2024 | body

When Stress Rules the Gut: Happiness Through Gut Health

Everyone knows it: stress. Children, work, household chores – maybe it’s time to catch up with old friends or perhaps it would be better to visit the parents? The list of tasks to be done just keeps getting longer, and that little red number on your phone indicating how many messages you haven’t yet responded to also keeps rising. The last relaxing day? – It feels like a distant memory. It’s hard to even recall what that felt like. But how does this stress affect our mental health?

Stress as a Shaper of Our Emotions

When we are stressed, it affects our behavior – that’s something we all know. Work was exhausting, we come home, and suddenly even the breathing of our partner seems too loud. Our patience wears thin very quickly. But stress not only diminishes our patience rapidly, it also plays a significant role in depressive and anxious moods. One reason for this is our tiny inhabitants: the gut bacteria.

With chronic stress, the composition of our gut bacteria changes, and our intestinal wall becomes more permeable. This allows lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which normally sit on the outside of a bacterial cell, to enter our bloodstream. This, in turn, alerts our immune system, which starts its defense mechanisms, thereby causing an inflammatory response. An ongoing inflammation is associated, among other negative consequences, with depressive and anxious behaviors. Thus, stress ultimately leads to a change in our emotional world through a modification of our gut.

Dealing with Stress

One way to interrupt this negative chain reaction is to improve how we handle stress. Perhaps the situation sounds familiar: you feel overwhelmed by stress, struggling to keep your head above water, while your partner seems to manage their full schedule with ease and still finds time to exercise regularly.

The difference often lies in the fact that many people can’t effectively cope with stress. But the good news is: it can be learned! Mindfulness exercises are particularly well-suited for this purpose.

Mindfulness: An Anchor in Stressful Times

You might have noticed, it’s often not the activity you’re currently engaged in that directly causes stress. More frequently, it’s the thoughts of all the tasks that still need to be done that put us under pressure. As we accomplish one task, the list of pending tasks in our minds grows incessantly.

Mindfulness exercises aim to keep us in the here and now, preventing us from being swept away by a flood of thoughts. It’s not about suppressing these thoughts. Rather, it’s about not giving them the attention they need to drag you into the vortex of stress.

An excellent exercise to begin mindfulness training is the so-called body scan. This involves mindfully focusing your attention on each part of your body. You start by concentrating on the crown of your head, before moving your attention to your forehead, your eyebrows, the point between your eyebrows, and so on, all the way down to your little toe. If your mind wanders, don’t worry. You will find that this happens more often than you might expect, especially in the beginning. Just bring your attention back to the part of your body you last focused on. Over time, you’ll notice that when your thoughts drift off in everyday life, you’ll catch it faster and find it easier to bring them back to the present.

Probiotics: Small Helpers Against Big Stress

Another strategy for protecting your body and mental well-being from the effects of chronic stress is to support your gut microbiome. One way to do this is to take probiotics – living microorganisms that, when consumed in adequate amounts, can have positive health effects. In particular, the intake of certain Lactobacilli, such as L. farciminis, L. rhamnosus and L. helveticus, has been shown in animal studies to reduce the increased permeability of the intestinal wall caused by chronic stress. Since a more permeable intestinal wall promotes inflammation, which is associated with depressive mood, strengthening the intestinal barrier can also help protect our emotional resilience. In particular, the consumption of L. farciminis in rats has shown the remarkable ability to not only strengthen the intestinal wall, but also to reduce stress responses in the body.

Managing Stress Through Gut Health and Mindfulness

Stress has numerous negative impacts on our health. Among other things, it promotes depressive mood by making the gut wall more permeable, thereby promoting inflammation, which in turn is associated with depressive and anxious behaviors. There are several approaches to breaking this negative cycle: On the one hand, starting mindfulness training can increase personal resilience to stress. On the other hand, supporting the gut microbiome through the intake of probiotics can help prevent inflammatory reactions. (LS)

Further reading:

Cryan JF, Dinan TG. Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2012 Oct;13(10):701-12. doi: 10.1038/nrn3346.

Zareie M, Johnson-Henry K, Jury J, Yang PC, Ngan BY, McKay DM, Soderholm JD, Perdue MH, Sherman PM. Probiotics prevent bacterial translocation and improve intestinal barrier function in rats following chronic psychological stress. Gut. 2006 Nov;55(11):1553-60. doi: 10.1136/gut.2005.080739.

Ait-Belgnaoui A, Durand H, Cartier C, Chaumaz G, Eutamene H, Ferrier L, Houdeau E, Fioramonti J, Bueno L, Theodorou V. Prevention of gut leakiness by a probiotic treatment leads to attenuated HPA response to an acute psychological stress in rats. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Nov;37(11):1885-95. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.03.024.

Image middle section: Oleg Breslavtsev – stock.adobe.com

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