Vitality

High Stress Environments May Lead To Unhealthy Gut Microbiomes: How To Protect Yourself From The Consequences

squirrel
A new study in squirrels found that higher stress levels caused gut microbiomes to be unhealthier. Pixabay, public domain

Many things, primarily diet, can impact our gut microbiomes — and in return, our gut microbiomes can play a large role in influencing our chances of developing obesity, cancer, and even mental health issues. Our bodies require a diverse array of “good bacteria” in order to thrive, as they can impact everything from our brains to our hearts.

In addition to eating a healthy diet with the occasional probiotic-rich food such as yogurt or kombucha, new research suggests that managing stress can also play a major role in maintaining a healthy microbiome. The study, published in the journal Biology Letters, examined squirrel microbiomes in addition to their stress hormones, and found that squirrels with more diverse gut bacteria (typically a sign of good health) were less stressed than squirrels with unhealthy microbiomes.

“A diverse microbiome is generally a good thing for your health — it’s why people take probiotics,” Mason Stothart, a former student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph in Canada, said in the press release. “We wanted to understand the relationship between the microbiome and stress. The greater the stress in the squirrels, the less bacterial diversity they had, which can be an indicator of poor health.”

The researchers captured squirrels in Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada, then took mouth swabs and fecal samples to measure their gut bacteria and stress levels. They also completed a second experiment in which they found the same squirrels two weeks later, and measured their stress hormone levels once again. During this second measurement, the researchers found that squirrels that had higher stress levels also had more “bad bacteria.”

“This is the first demonstration that there is a link between stress and microbiome diversity in the wild,” Amy Newman, senior author of the study, said in the press release. “Conducing this study in a natural environment provides a more realistic look at the microbiome and its potential link to stress and health.”

The study was done with squirrels, so it would likely need to be repeated again in humans before forming any conclusions. However, it provides information that we can keep in mind as we navigate an often stressful world.

Stress has been found to have a profound effect on pretty much every part of your body. Not only does it contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems, but it can increase your chances of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer. It’s not surprising, then, that an imbalanced microbiome is also the consequence of a stressful lifestyle. And it shouldn’t be that surprising that stress and bacteria are deeply linked. One recent study found that pregnant women who were under a lot of stress were actually found to transfer the negative effects of stress onto their children — through their vaginal microbiota.

So how can you reduce your stress levels to combat all of these long-term health issues? Focusing on plenty of sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise can begin to take away some of the edge of anxiety. And it never hurts to try a form of meditation and mindfulness (whether that’s sitting quietly, journaling, doing yoga, praying, or emptying your mind of racing thoughts), as research has shown continuously that it can lower stress and depression.

Source: Stothart M, Bobbie C, Schulte-Hostedde A, Boonstra R, Palme R, Mykytczuk N. Stress and the microbiome: linking glucocorticoids to bacterial community dynamics in wild red squirrels. Biology Letters, 2016.

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