Does stress impact gut health?
Written by Talisha Kendell (Author Tummy Buggies, founder littlemashies.com)
We’ve been hearing it for a while – that stress impacts our overall health. And more recently integrative doctors, researchers and patients have pondered the question “How does stress effect our gut health?”.
As a sufferer of digestive issues for over 3 decades I originally thought that my digestive problems were the direct result of things I was eating. And yes, sure, this was the case for some of my issues, but when I restricted my diet so heavily that I was barely eating any thing at all, why was I still getting sick? The answer was stress. Looking back now I can clearly see links all throughout my life of how stress has affected my gut health.
When I was ten I used to desperately need to go to the bathroom every morning when waiting for the bus. It was my body having severe anxiety because on those bus rides I used to get tormented by the big kids sitting up the back. I was stressed. Then later in life I would instantly feel sick in the pit of my stomach every time I’d have conflict or an argument with anyone! Now, at aged 34, I can look back over the decades and see hundreds of examples of where stress has impacted my gut health. Times when I’ve been doing everything “right” food-wise, but I’ve still been sick. I can look back and see times when my health has been better and times when it has been worse. And for me, the common denominator was always stress. Even with huge improvements in my diet I could only get healthy to a certain point. The best times I’ve had with my health has been when my life was calm, happy, and stress free. So that’s my experience, but what does the research say?
Last month Behavioural Brain Research journal featured a study where they looked at the effects of acute and repeated exposure to stress on the gut microbiota of hamsters. The study showed two key findings that have significance in the possibilities of the application to humans.
Firstly, imagine the stress of being in a completely new social setting… like your first day of high school for example. Everyone has to scramble to find their place in the school, who is a leader, who is a follower, how the groups interplay etc. Well, this is kind of what the study reenacted; Scientists introduced a group of hamster’s to each other that had previously never met. They hypothesized that there would be both winners (dominants) and losers (subordinates), and that this would happen after a substantial amount of “social stress”.
The results are not what you would imagine! Substantial changes in gut microbe diversity occurred in both groups (the winners and the losers). A decreased bacteria diversity has been associated with poor gut health in numerous studies to date. So the conclusion is that repeated stress does impact gut health. Secondly when analyzing the initial gut bacteria species in the hamster’s before and after the experiment the researchers noticed that the “dominants” shared some common species of microbes. What does this mean? Well… imagine a world where you go for a job interview and they study your microbes to see where you might fit into the social hierarchy! Yes.. It’s a long way off, and perhaps far fetched, but this research is just the tip of the iceberg and with further studies researchers and scientists will find more commonalities and then practical uses of those findings.