Stress. It’s something all people deal with- whether in large or small amounts- we all know what it feels like. Stress doesn’t always mean staying up to pull an all-nighter and barely making the deadline for a paper, it can be just the anxiousness of flying and getting all your things packed before a trip. In general, stress messes with our immune systems in a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of research on the different ways that stress can affect our bodies ranging from our brains to our hearts. New research has shown another way that stress affects our immune systems: through our gut microbiota. What is our gut microbiota? Formally called gut flora, our gut microbiota is the microbe population living in our intestine. Research has revealed that this microbe population is extremely sensitive to any change in our lifestyles, stress included.
The number one thing that affects our gut flora is our diet. Our bodies are very sensitive to what we eat and how active we are. Problems in giving our bodies proper nutrition and exercise can result in mental health problems, diabetes, obesity, or cancer. Stress, however, has been shown to have a very big impact on our gut. An article reported in Medical Daily described a study done on wild squirrels. The researchers examined squirrel microbiomes and their stress hormone levels. They found that the more stressed a squirrel was, the less variety of bacteria in their gut. They concluded that a healthier squirrel would have more diverse gut bacteria. They assume the same is true for humans, but will have to test to verify. On a side note, they also conducted a test where they found that pregnant women under stress were found to transfer negative effects of stress to their children through vaginal microbiota.
Here is a possibly stressed squirrel (although he seems happy eating the nuts).
Yet another study was conducted and published through The Atlantic on gut microbiota- specifically on “traveler’s constipation.” You might be wondering why I’m mentioning this because, let’s face it- who wouldn’t want to be traveling on a flight to the Bahamas right about now? For our gut, however, this can pose a lot of stresses we wouldn’t think about. About 40% of people say they suffer from travelers constipation, so let’s find out what this is all about. Firstly, on vacation our eating habits change. Whether this means coming home for the holidays and binge eating cookies, or eating a lot less than you normally eat, your gut is sensitive to both. Another, more surprising effect is the change of scenery- your gut is extremely sensitive to change of setting. Anytime you leave your general habitat, in fact, it throws your gut flora off balance- especially if the time zone changes because it messes up routine. For some, the mere thought of traveling can cause difficulty with their bowel movements. Sitting on planes or in a car for long periods of time can also really mess with your gut because part of what helps us “go” is moving around. This is why exercise can actually help you to go to the bathroom. All of these things are things we might not really think about because we don’t understand why it happens or we might not even realize it’s happening sometimes.
Our gut is often called the “second brain”, because millions of neurons line the intestines so it really does play a role in your mental state. Diet and exercise are extremely important in maintaining a healthy gut. Doctors and researchers have have recommended sleep, a lot of water, yogurt, probiotics or other fermented foods, foods high in fiber and meditation and mindfulness. These two might be surprising, but it makes sense. If our gut really is our “second brain” we should take really good care of our mental health through meditation, being mindful, and even therapy.