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The Relationship Between Stress and Gut Microbiota

How stress manipulates the trillions of tiny microorganisms we carry in our gut.

Stress Is a Killer, Literally

Before COVID-19 descended upon us, stress was named the health epidemic of the 21st century. Stress is responsible for about 90% of all illnesses and diseases. Manifesting through our body’s response to anything we perceive as overwhelming, it can be a reaction to things we can’t control, like certain of our surroundings or circumstances.

However, there is one major ingredient of stress that we can control: our food intake.

Our body’s innate reaction to stress creates extra energy in order to protect our vital organs and crucial biochemical activities. This indestructible energy serves its purpose, but it also sets in motion an imbalance in our systems that can make us sick.

The health burden of stress-related diseases is on the increase. For example, information from the United States Center for Disease Control shows that about 83% of all deaths for adults between 21 and 65 years old are related to lifestyle. As unmanaged stress continues to adversely impact our health, we must identify common stressors and how we can manage them.

What Is Human Gut Microbiota?

What we eat and when we choose to eat it has a lot to do with our emotions. Those are largely influenced by the activity of microorganisms (microbiota) found in our gastrointestinal tract. We share an excellent symbiotic relationship with the native communities of microorganisms (or gut flora or microbiome) that live inside us, and examples of our tiny citizens include bacteria, fungi, and archaea.

The same kinds of microbiota also dwell in the digestive tracts of other animals, including insects. They play an essential role in protecting against diseases, harvesting energy, shaping the intestinal epithelium, and regulating the host immune system.

Although there are ten times more bacterial cells in the human gut than actual human cells, they (mostly) function harmoniously without causing disease. A 2015 research reported that about 2172 different bacterial species live in the human gut. They are in constant communication with the host cells to trigger the release of the enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters that help us digest food.

They also influence our emotions and, you guessed it, our stress levels. The microbial communities must maintain balance to promote good health. An imbalance in the interaction between humans and their gut microbiota is known as dysbiosis, and it is responsible for several diseases.

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The Relationship Between Stress and Gut Microbiota

The relationship between humans with their gut microbiota has evolved in multiple ways. Beyond digesting food, the microorganisms instruct genes on what to do. They secrete a specific molecule, usually nitric oxide, that allows them to communicate with and control the host’s DNA, thus affecting health. There are also reports indicating that our gut microbiota majorly influences food cravings and eating behaviors.

Let’s take a closer look:

1. Our diet modulates our body’s manifestation of stress and depression.

The type of food consumed determines the activities of the gut microbiome. Adherence to a poor diet encourages the growth and proliferation of harmful bacteria, leading to inflammation. Inflammation reactions via bacteria bloom are associated with depression. High-quality diets are healthier in many ways. For instance, their antioxidant elements can help keep vast growth in check, thus restoring balance.

2. Gut microbiota influences food cravings and eating behaviors.

Many people respond to stress by creating a craving for certain foods. Have you ever wondered why? Well, the energy demand of our brains increases by 12% once stress is introduced. It makes sense then that we’d crave food high in carbohydrates or sugar.

Research reveals that gut microbiota can produce molecules that mimic or interfere with human-appetite-regulating peptides and hormones. It can also modify reward pathways, communicate with the appetite-modulating vagus nerve, and even manipulate the expression of taste receptors. As if that weren’t enough, gut microbiota can actually trigger the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine. No wonder our eating behavior is linked with our mood!

3. Stress and gut microbiota: a force to be reckoned with.

Stress can also reshape the the gut microbiota composition through stress hormones, autonomic alterations, and inflammation. In response, metabolites, toxins, and neurohormones are released that can alter eating behavior and mood. In addition, stress can deactivate the functional executive function in response to food cues, thus creating a bias for certain foods which may be unhealthy. All in all, individuals suffering from depression are more likely to house proinflammatory species of microbiota since their gut metabolism and chemistry favor their proliferation.

4 Takeaways

1. Literally deadly, stress is an enormous health obstacle in today’s world.

2. Gut microbiota, the trillions upon trillions of microorganisms that reside in our gut, influences the body’s function and thus impacts our reaction to stress.

3. Stress leads to poor health. The good news is that we can control what we eat, manipulating our gut microbiota to maintain better balance.

4. We can manage many other of the ingredients of stress. In addition to monitoring your diet, be mindful of life’s stressors and work with your support system to address them appropriately.

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