Are you stressed out because of your gut health, or is your gut health causing your stress? For gut health coaches, this is our version of the chicken or the egg dilemma. So how does this cycle begin, and more importantly, how do we end it?
Stress can lead to poor food choices.
When we get stressed out, it is common to self-sooth by eating comfort foods. Research shows that eating calorie dense foods raises serotonin levels, and this is notably higher in foods that contain both sugars and fats.1 It has also been shown that people under stress are less likely to eat fruit, vegetables, or fish, and significantly increase their snacking.2 Stress can also interfere with leptin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, and can lead to overeating.3 (This might explain why I gained nearly thirty pounds during the recent stresses of social distancing.) Unfortunately, these eating behaviors favor opportunistic bacteria like H. pylori and this can lead to overgrowth and dysbiosis.
Bacteria can raise stress.
According to new research, microbes can produce compounds that act upon our nervous system.4 H. pylori, for instance, consumes sugar and excretes a toxin that travels to the vegas nerve and can interfere with blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature. What does it feel like when your blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, and body temperature gets warmer? To me, that feels like stress, and I might be tempted to eat even more sugar to get a serotonin release to mediate the physiological change which would feed these organisms their preferred meal.
Some people forget to eat when stressed.
I can’t even tell you how many times that I have been working on a project, lose track of time, and the next thing you know, it’s closer to dinner than lunch. If this pattern continues over a period of time, the E. coli in our gut begin to release a toxin that mimics α-MSH, a hormone that influences “food intake, body weight, anxiety and melanocortin receptor 4 signaling.”5 So, the less you eat, the less you want to eat, and the more anxious you become.
If either of these situations seem familiar, you may be caught in a microbial influenced state of stress. The good news is that you can be aware of it and take steps to break the cycle and get your health back!
What to do about it.
The first, and most important step, is to manage your stress. Take time to unwind at the end of a hard day—and really unwind. Playing video games will raise your stress hormones, and that’s the opposite of what you need. Instead, turn down the lights, listen to relaxing music, go for a leisurely walk, of take a nice, hot, magnesium salt bath. Many people benefit from breathing exercises to manage their stress, or use HRV techniques to downregulate the overstimulated nervous system.
Next, you need to change up your diet, and eliminate sugar. If you are forgetting to eat, set a timer and munch on a plantain, if you are overeating, try to eat foods that are satiating like baked potatoes (hold the cheese), salmon, or a nice warm bowl of butternut squash soup. If you must snack, try some non-GMO popcorn popped in high oleic peanut oil, or a few pieces of watermelon as a comfort food that will not trash your microbiome.
These changes will time and it is important to be patient with yourself. Don’t add to your stress if you get off track and eat a package of M&Ms—it happens! Forgive yourself, and try to go for the popcorn next time. You can also try and offset some of the damage by supplementing with a probiotic from our sponsor, Smidge.
Good luck, and if you need support, please reach out to John, or me. We’ll be happy to help you!