• The Surprising Connection Between Stress & Your Gut

  •  - The Surprising Connection Between Stress & Your Gut

Unless you’re dealing with some type of digestive distress, chances are good you don’t give a lot of thought to your gut. When your gastrointestinal tract is working properly, there’s not much to take note of, after all. But, there’s a lot more to gut health than just digestion and waste removal. We’re talking, of course, about your microbiome.

What Is The Microbiome?

You’ve probably heard this term before, but might not know exactly what it refers to. For the record, your microbiome is a so-called community of bacteria (both “good” and “bad”) that can be found on areas like your skin, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, GI tract, and genitals. Each of these areas has their own mix of bacteria that must stay balanced in order to keep that area — and, in some cases, your whole body — healthy. When the bad bacteria outnumber the good, you can find yourself dealing with everything from skin rashes to irritable bowel syndrome to a weakened immune system.

The Brain-Gut Connection

Perhaps the most significant microbiome, in relation to your overall health, is your gut microbiome, as it not only controls digestion, but also your body’s immune system and ability to fend off disease and illness. It’s also one of the most complex and recent scientific studies have uncovered some fascinating discoveries about the link between your gut and your brain. “What’s curious is that every single neurotransmitter we’ve identified in the central nervous system — that is, the brain and the spinal column — we’ve found is also present in the gut,” explains Dr. Timothy Birdsall, ND, FABNO, a naturopathic doctor and Vice President of Integrative Medicine at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “We normally think of the brain and the gut as two different individual entities, one that breaks down and digests food and one that controls the higher functions like emotions and intellect, as well as autonomic functions like breathing and keeping the heart beating.

Learning that those neurotransmitters — which are the molecules that represent the signaling of the nervous system — exist in the gut, that says to me that we can’t separate the body into individual parts. We’re a whole being and anything that goes on in any part of the body affects every part of the body.”

The Probiotics Myth

Knowing the importance of keeping the gut microbiome healthy, there’s been a lot of attention around the proliferation of good bacteria, specifically in the form of probiotic supplements. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are said to boost the amount of good bacteria in the gut, helping to counteract the bad bacteria and keep your GI microbiome in balance.  While, in theory this makes sense — if you want to make sure the bad bugs don’t outnumber the good, you can add more good ones to keep everything aligned — unfortunately, according to Dr. Birdsall, there’s no scientific evidence proving that probiotics have any appreciable change in the balance of good and bad bacteria. “The studies that have been done that look at the microbiome in the intestinal tract before and after taking probiotic [supplements] show that they don’t make much of a change,” he explains.

A More Mindful Microbiome

So, how then to cultivate a plentiful population of good gut bugs? According to Dr. Birdsall, it’s not about multiplying the amount, but rather strengthening the ones that are present. And the best way to do that, he says, is to be more mindful about the lifestyle choices you make on the daily, starting with your diet. “All the bugs in your body use as their food supply the things that we eat and that remain in the intestinal tract as a byproduct of digestion,” says Dr. Birdsall. The healthy bugs live off of various types of fiber, he explains, while the bad bugs feed on simple carbohydrates and saturated fats. “One of the many reasons that sugar and a high-protein diet are bad for you,” he says, “is in part because they foster the growth of bad bacteria.” So, by focusing on a high-fiber diet and cutting out those unhealthy carbohydrates and saturated fats, you can supercharge the good bugs you already have, and, as Dr. Birdsall puts it, starve out the bad bugs.

But, diet isn’t the only lifestyle factor that can have an impact on the gut microbiome. Recent studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise may have the ability to both increase the amount of beneficial microbial species and enrich the diversity of that microflora. Sleep is another area that Dr. Birdsall says has a noted link, however it’s not yet known which one influences the other. “Sleep and the microbiome are linked, but it’s not clear which is cause and which is effect,” he says. “In other words, does poor sleep create an unhealthy microbiome, or does an unhealthy microbiome create poor sleep?” Despite that uncertainty, there’s no denying the two are related and anyone suffering from sleep troubles should keep their microbiome in mind when exploring sleep solutions.