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Ever felt butterflies in your stomach? That’s because your mind tells your stomach that it’s nervous. Ever had diarrhoea due to stress or worry? It could be because your brain is sending stressed signal to your stomach, which then responds.
Despite our supposedly laid-back lifestyle, Australians are stressed. A recent survey found that eight out of ten of us feel stressed in our day-to-day life, worrying about money, family and, ironically, getting, and staying healthy.[i]
This constant stress can play havoc on our wellbeing, in particular, the healthy function of our digestive system and stomach. This is because your gut is another ‘brain’ in your body. So, if your mind is racing, worried and over-tired, then your gut will feel this too. The vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve running from your brain stem to your stomach, sends and receives messages, and responds to stress.
How stress affects your gut
Findings published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, found that stress can have a short- and long-term effect on the health of your gut. According to the study, exposure to stress results in changes in the brain-gut communications, which may lead to gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other health issues such as food sensitivities or reactions, ulcers and reflux disease.[ii]
Not only can your state of mind affect your gut, but your gut can also affect your state of mind. Harvard researchers found that a distressed intestinal track can be the cause or product of anxiety, stress or depression.[iii]
Further research shows that the balance of good and bad bacteria in your stomach, can affect the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can affect how happy, motivated or positive you feel. The gut-brain connection is an established relationship and plays an important role in cognitive function, with the gut responsible for facilitating the production of some neurotransmitters.[iv]
The following symptoms could be an indication that your mind-gut connection needs some nurturing:
– Stiff neck and shoulders
– Changes in libido
– Inability to focus
– Lack of interest in socialising
– Emotional behaviour changes, such as crying without reason
– Constantly feeling stressed or under pressure
– Inability to relax
– Feelings of depression
How probiotics can help
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help promote the natural balance of gut flora, or microbiota. A probiotic which contains several strains can help to rebalance your gut.
According to one study, probiotics appear to show a beneficial effect on general signs of stress, mild anxiety and low mood. Taken over 30 days, the subjects found an improvement in psychological symptoms, reduced psychological stress and decreased levels of cortisol.[v]
If you feel that a probiotic would help you deal with stress, or you have a particularly busy time coming up, look for a probiotic which contains Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175. These strains have been shown to help improve mood, reduce stress, depression and feelings of anger and hostility.[vi]
By balancing good and bad bacteria, nourishing your gut flora with fermented foods, such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables, and a daily probiotic supplement, you may find it easier to deal with stress, and your physical symptoms may also show improvements.iii
Depression and anxiety are serious medical conditions and you should consult your healthcare practitioner to discuss your particular needs to optimise your health.
[i] Australian Psychological Society. APS Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2015. 2016. Retrieved: https://www.psychology.org.au/psychologyweek/survey/results-stress-and-wellbeing/
[ii] Konturek PC et al. (2011) Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol 62(6):591-9 Retrieved https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22314561
[iii] Komaroff AL (2017) The gut brain connection. Harvard medical School. Retrieved https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
[iv] Dinan TG (2015) Collective unconscious: How gut microbes shape human behaviour. J Psych Res 63:1-9 Retrieved http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022395615000655
[v] Mohammadi AA et al. (2016). The effects of probiotics on mental health and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in petrochemical workers. Nutritional Neuroscience 19 (9) :387-395
[vi] Messaoudi, M et al.(2011) Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. Br J Nutr 105(5):755-64