Could Stress Be As Unhealthy As Junk Food For Your Gut?

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If you’ve cleared your cabinets of processed foods but your stress level is constantly a 10 out of 10, it may be time to rethink your get-healthy strategy. Last year, researchers found that when female mice eating a healthy diet were exposed to stress, their gut microbiome—the trillions of microorganisms found in the digestive tract—began to resemble the microbiome of mice on an unhealthy diet.

Although the impacts of those changes aren’t clear, a growing body of research suggests that an unhealthy balance of gut bacteria (like that found in the mice on a high-fat diet) could play a role in exacerbating stress-related conditions like depression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

“The proposed chemical pathways are fairly complex,“ says Arizona-based physician Natasha Bhuyan, MD. “We suspect that stress can cause changes to blood flow to your gut, food moving through your gut, or even how your gut absorbs food. With this research indicating a shift in the gut microbiota, it’s clear that stress can have long-term consequences on your health.”

5 Ways to Combat Chronic Stress

Stress is going to happen whether you like it or not. But stress management is somewhat within your control, says Erica Matluck, ND, NP, a naturopath and nurse practitioner in New York and California who specializes in digestive problems and other chronic issues. The key is to learn coping strategies so stressors don’t take over your life and ravage your health. Here are five.

Focus on your breath. Slow, deep breathing is a great tool to moderate the nervous system,” says Matluck. “It sends a message that you’re safe and your survival isn’t threatened.” Try Fitbit’s Relax feature for some help. It can guide you through a two- or five-minute session.

Talk it out. “It’s often so hard to see our own self-destructive or self-sabotaging thoughts—those thoughts that keep us in fight-or-flight,” says New York-based nurse practitioner and health coach, Victoria Albina, NP, MPH. “Working with a professional listener, like a therapist or health coach, can help you shift your thoughts.”

Write it down. “When thoughts rattle around in our heads without any outlet, stress continues and can multiply,” says Albina. “By journaling, we can get the stressful thoughts and feelings out of our hearts and minds, bringing back order, calm, and peace—a much better and more efficient place from which to work.” And it doesn’t require a huge time commitment: One study found that university students who journaled for about 15 minutes every night for a week experienced reduced bedtime worry and stress, increased sleep time, and improved sleep quality.

Eat pre- and probiotics. Consider probiotics—living microorganisms found in fermented foods (like yogurt) that contain living cultures—the good guys in your gut. Prebiotics are the non-digestible carbohydrates, found in foods like leeks and asparagus, that feed these good guys and help them thrive. Together, prebiotics and probioticscan help ease inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, which supports balanced brain chemistry and can can reduce the experience of stress, says Albina.

Cut yourself some slack. “When you’re hard on yourself about not managing stress, you’re feeding back into the cycle that caused your stress to be elevated—and frankly, being hard on yourself never got anyone anywhere,” says Albina. “Try being compassionate and kind and see where that can get you.” Research has shownthat committing to a regular meditation practice (30-minute sessions once a week for eight weeks) can help inspire compassion.

“Stress-reduction takes a multifaceted approach,” says Bhuyan. “The results feel subtle, but with regular mindfulness, you’ll soon notice that project deadlines don’t worry you as much or your boss doesn’t stress you out like before. If you’re not sure where to start, it’s a great idea to see your primary care provider and come up with a stress-reduction plan that’s tailored to you.”

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