There’s been an explosion of research in the past couple of decades on the relationship between gut microbiota (the 3½-4 pounds of microscopic critters that live inside our intestines, especially the bacteria in our colons) and health. One surprising finding is that these colonic microbes have a considerable influence on our ability to deal with stress and anxiety.
New challenges posed by the COVID pandemic have made it all the more important to maintain stress resiliency—the ability to roll with the punches and deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way. Like most health resources, at Beyond Health we’ve often recommended “stress reduction” practices, like meditation, exercise, and simple things like enjoying music or nature to reduce the impact of stress. But an equally powerful way to increase stress resilience is by making sure you have good bacteria in your colon!
There is a complex bi-directional communication system between gut microbiota and the brain called the “gut-brain axis” that links what’s going on in our intestines to what’s happening to us cognitively and emotionally. It’s been found, for example, that “mental” problems such as depression, anxiety and even autism correspond with specific gastrointestinal disturbances; at the same time, problems considered GI issues, like irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal bowel disease, have psychological features.
In fact microbiota in the gut play an indispensable role in brain development and function throughout life. For example, they’re responsible for the development of specific brain structures like the amygdala, which regulates our responses to fear and anxiety (the “fight or flight response.”) The amygdala controls impulsive behavior and also our ability to store memories of both negative and positive experiences. Ever experience that uneasy feeling in your gut? That’s due to the messages running from your gut to your brain and vice versa, sometimes even before you’re consciously aware of danger.
Probiotics make feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA that are crucial to mental health and stress resiliency. But according to neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock, MD, stress can change the composition of gut microbiota, decreasing probiotics and increasing harmful ones (a condition called intestinal dysbiosis) that produce inflammatory substances that are destructive to the brain. Such inflammatory brain damage reduces stress resilience and leads to succumbing to anxiety and depression.
Both animal and human studies have born this out. For example, Dr. Blaylock cites animal studies in which removing bacteria led to exaggerated behavioral responses even to mild stress; while other studies showed that giving animals or humans probiotics lowered stress-induced cortisol levels, increased stress resilience and improved emotional responses to stress.
To keep your bowel microbiota healthy, we recommend eating a low-sugar, high-fiber diet; avoiding antibiotics when possible; eating lots of green vegetables; and taking a high-quality probiotic supplement, such as our Beyond Health’s Probiotic Formula. It’s also important to feed the probiotics living in your gut with fiber from a variety of sources. If your diet isn’t supplying at least 40 grams a day, supplement with Beyond Health’s Dietary Fiber Formula.
- Blaylock R. How gut bacteria affect the brain. Health and Nutrition Updates. The Blaylock Wellness Report. July 2020, p. 9.
- Blaylock R. How gut bacteria affect stress and anxiety. Understanding the Real Dangers of the Pandemic. The Blaylock Wellness Report. November 2020, p. 10.
- Neuroscientifically Challenged. Know your brain: Amygdala. June 24, 2014.