Stress is one of those triggers – like diet or antibiotics – that can throw our gut bugs (our microbiome) badly out of balance.
We know from recent scientific studies that the gut-brain connection is a much deeper one than we could ever have imagined, and the connection goes both ways.
Studies on both mice and humans show that the more diverse our microbiome is, the more resilient we are to stress.
Can this really be true? If so, how can we work it to our advantage?
If we’re severely stressed, our microbiome takes a hit (more on this below). But it also works in reverse: when our microbiome is thrown out balance by something or a combination of things, WE take a hit. How? We become less robust and more stressed.
This is some pretty crazy sh*t! It shows a deeply connected, truly symbiotic relationship between us and those little bacteria. They look after us, and we need to look after them too.
For a look at the host of reasons your microbiome may be out of balance, check out Why Your Gut is Broken
You’ve probably spotted that this also sets up the possibility of a bad feedback loop: we get stressed and our microbiome suffers, then we feel the stress even more, and so on.
We can break that loop by boosting our friendly gut bugs with probiotics and by getting our diet right.
Stress upsets our good bacteria
At any given time we have a balance of good and bad microbes living in and on us. It’s kind of icky when you stop and think about it but there’s a huge ecosystem of trillions of them.
These bacteria are not just hanging around. They are literally wired into our immune system, metabolism and central nervous system helping us humans to function properly. By the way they’re doing the same in every other animal on the planet too!
Given how closely interconnected we are, it’s not surprising that when we’re chronically stressed it can affect our gut bugs too.
Studies with mice have shown that stress increases the amount of bad bacteria in the gut, throwing the ecosystem out of balance. Mice are considered to be sufficiently similar to humans for these studies to give us strong clues of what’s going on in own bodies.
There have also been human studies. So far these have focused on short, acute stress rather than the chronic stress that most of us have (thank you modern life!)
So for example, we know that after a stroke our microbiome changes for the worse. It becomes less diverse with unfriendly species gaining ground.
It’s also known that people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have lower levels of three particular bacteria. However it’s not yet clear if lower levels of those bacteria make us more susceptible to PTSD or follow from having PTSD.
Anything that upsets our gut bugs, such as stress in this case, leads sooner or later, to our digestion malfunctioning. This leads to absorbing less nutrients from the food we eat. These nutrients are the vital building blocks that enable our body to function and heal.
Without enough of the right nutrients our body is weaker. We find it harder to get and stay well. We catch more coughs and colds and may end up taking more antibiotics.
Taking antibiotics is necessary sometimes but it always damages our microbiome and therefore weakens our immune system. This can lead to a cycle of more antibiotic use, more damage to the microbiome, lowered immunity and yet more antibiotics
Brain On Fire
A scientific review in 2016 found that our microbiome plays a huge role in how our body responds to stress and in particular our brain.
They described our microbiome as the ‘regulator’ that determines the level of inflammation in our brain (‘neuroinflammation’). For a quick intro to the subject of inflammation check out Inflammation: Putting Out The Fire
This also fits with what we know about our friendly bacteria helping our immune system to find the correct level of response to threats, like turning a thermostat up and down. More details here: Supercharge Your Body to Crush Autoimmune Conditions
In this scientific review the authors talk about ‘microglia’. These are immune cells in our brain and central nervous system, a bit like little soldiers defending our brain and nerve cells from attack by pathogens.
The authors say: ‘diverse gastrointestinal microbiota is essential for the continuous preservation of healthy microglia and proper brain function throughout our lifespans’
In other words if we want our brain to function properly throughout our entire life (yes please!!) we MUST have a rich and healthy microbiome
Get By With a Little Help From Our Friends
One thing that’s clear from both mouse and human studies is that our friendly bacteria help us cope with stress.
In one study, for example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol were significantly lower in people taking probiotics as compared to those taking a placebo. This had the effect of boosting the subjects resilience to stress and improved their emotional responses.
In other words boosting our microbiome will help us to feel positive in the face of stress, as opposed to feeling bummed out and hopeless, overwhelmed by a torrent of negative thoughts.
When we take a step back to look at the bigger picture, there’s no question that chronic stress can damage our microbiome. However there’s more to it than that, as we now know that our microbiome also plays a big role in PROTECTING us against stress.
Armed with this knowledge we can engineer ourselves to be more resilient to life’s stresses and strains by taking care of our old friends, the bacteria.
It can be act of daily self-care, for example by eating a little live, cultured food with every meal and by avoiding processed food altogether. Check out Clean Eating: More Than Just An Elitist Fad
I also suggest some gut-friendly coping strategies here: 7 Stress Busting, Gut Soothing Strategies
42 thoughts on “How Stress Wreaks Havoc On Your Microbiome”
It’s fascinating how everything in our body is connected. And it’s actually great since we often have the opportunity or even power to improve our wellbeing ourselves.
Stress creates so much havoc on our bodies. This article was very informative , I really hope to keep these pointers in mind for good health.
Stress definitely affects your gut, I remember once being stressed for finals and had diarrhea straight for a week.
There is hardly any days that I am not stressed. Now, I know that too much stress will affect our auto immune system, I should learn to keep my stressors at bay.
Stress really hits us badly and worst in different ways. On my end, stress hit me badly with regards to health
Stress certainly is so hard to deal with. I didn’t realize how much more it affects all of us.
No wonder when I am stressed out my tummy acts funny to wish I had known this earlier full stop thank you for sharing this valuable information.
I didn’t know that stress could do so much damage or hurt our stomachs and our own microbiome. I learn something new today!
Stress is a serious enemy. That’s why it’s so important for me to take a break in the middle of my work week, except for the weekend, so I don’t fatigued. If I fail to rest, I get so stressed and my immune system goes down.
I 150% agree with this post! I had a leaky gut and it created one health issue after the next. It cost me thousands of dollars to change my lifestyle eating habits, the vitamins, probiotics, and proteins needed, and mental therapy. Leaky gut is not a joke. I never want to hurt my gut again.
Stress can create havoc with our entire body.. thankfully I knew that gut is one of the major things that our stress can play with and I started taking probiotic milk which has helped me a lot.
I didn’t know probiotics help in stress. I would include in my diet from now on. That’s a very detailed post on stress.
Thanks a lot for your detailed explanation and info, all in all, stress is never a good friend! – Knycx Journeying
The most unwanted feeling of emotion is stress, although you don’t want it there will be times that you will feel this. Thank you for this post, I enjoyed reading the helpful tips.
Stress can wreak havoc in our bodies in almost all areas! I have started trying to get more probiotics into my system these days! Hopefully, that will help@
Stress has really caused me the worst hassles and ailments over the years, however much of the cure is in the mind!
Every now and then, we are encountering stress factors so it is important to know how we can relieve from them once we are feeling that the stress is taking over. 🙂
I agree with you on this topic. Thanks for sharing such amazing hacks for stress.
Well these days stress is quite killing me but my life saver is music. I take no meds but listening to good calming music helps me think better.
I agree with this. Back when I used to be super obsessed with work that sometimes I tend to skip meals, eat whatever that’s easy to chew and just bury myself in my workload. I’ve gotten sick a few times (ulcer). It was a disaster!
What an interesting post! I never thought of stress affecting me like this.
You have compiled some good information. Loved reading this post and I got some nice insights for myself.
Stress is a killer. I don’t consume probiotics as much as I should though, although I know should. Thanks for sharing this.
I didn’t know that stress could do such thing as upset bad bacteria. I have to be more mindful of stress from now on.
If you’re constantly under stress, you can have physical symptoms, such as headaches, an upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, and problems with sex and sleep. Stress can also lead to emotional problems, depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.
This was really eye opening. For me, anyway, it explains some personal stuff. Thanks for sharing!
I didn’t know that stress can affect bacteria and it seems we need to stress less. Honestly, I stress a lot but I need to fix that.
I think a lot of people have been under stress for so long that they don’t even realize how much it’s affecting their body. It’s good to know that there are things we can do to improve our health.
This is exactly why I started eating healthier and exercising. Gut health is so important!
Amazing! I learned something new about how stress affects my microbiomes from your post. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Stress has a lot of negative effects in our physical and mental health. Thank you so much for the tips on how we can avoid this!
This is really interesting, I think it really affects me looking at what you wrote! Will look into my diet 🙂
I hate stress. It’s either it makes me not to eat, or eat so much! And gives me a headache. To combat stress, I stop overthinking, grab a warm bubble bath, and sleep early. Next day I’m back my mojo!
The gut/ brain connection is so fascinating!
I didn’t ever think about the connection between stress and my gut, but it makes sense. Thanks
Thanks so much for this imformative practical post!! I so agree with every single word! I am just learning about gut health and the microbiome and am blown away with the awesomeness of it all!!! I will be looking forward to more posts!
This is such good information. Thanks for sharing these. I gotta keep these in mind!
Stress is such a destructive thing. I know it makes me sick often if I let it get out of hand.
I didnt know about this to be honest! I’m glad I got the chance to read this article, a real eye opener !
Thanks for sharing this, it is really interesting. I feel as if I am constantly stressed, so I believe I need to try to get some extra probiotics in my daily routine.
This is amazingly informative. I know I need to get back on the prebiotic train because I definitely have stress during the holiday season.
I try to get plenty of probiotics daily, and now I am even happier that I do! I didn’t realize how they can help with stress.