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The effect of stress on the microflora of the gastrointestinal tract

A large proportion of people, who experience extreme stress on a daily basis, also suffer from gastrointestinal disorders. Stress is a physiological reaction of the body to a stressor that the brain perceives as a threat. Stress in small doses can be productive as it can motivate you and improve your focus and productivity. However, chronic stress can negatively affect both our mental and physical health.

When we experience stress and anxiety, our body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. Prolonged or frequent stress response can disrupt the balance in the gut microbiome (gut flora). High cortisol levels can negatively impact the diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Gut flora plays a vital role in maintaining our overall health, including our mental wellbeing. It also helps digest food, produce essential nutrients and regulate the immune system.

Our gut and brain communicate bidirectionally through the gut-brain axis (GBA), influencing our mood, emotions, cognitive function, and stress response. The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” due to its direct and constant interaction with the brain; that is, the interaction of the gut’s autonomic nervous system, the so-called enteric nervous system (ENS), with the central nervous system (CNS) of the body.

An unbalanced gut flora can lead to a weakened immune system and gastrointestinal disorders. This dysregulation can make people more prone to illness and further worsen stress symptoms. Maintaining a balanced –thus healthy– gut flora helps to regulate the immune function, while any disruption can have a negative impact on mental health.

Ways to balance your gut flora and improve your digestive health:

  • Manage stress with simple techniques, such as slow, deep breathing; exercise; spending time with loved ones; adequate sleep; relaxing music; psychotherapy.
  • Restore good bacteria in the gut by eating a wide range of foods, including fresh wholefoods from plant sources, such as fruits, vegetables and legumes, probiotic yogurt (rich in live active cultures) and fermented foods and drinks, such as kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha.
  • Avoid high-fat and processed foods.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Reduce smoking and alcohol intake.
  • Guided by the advice of a healthcare professional, you can also take a probiotic supplement that contains the appropriate quantity and quality of good bacteria strains for your individual needs.

A healthy gut flora can help reduce the occurrence of diseases, increase productivity and improve the overall quality of life.

* Written by Andreas Pylazeris, Medical Affairs Advisor, MPharm, FD, MClinPharm UK