When we think about stress, we usually think it’s something that happens only in our heads. But when we feel stressed the good bacteria in the gut feel it, too, and this affects mood, general health, and skin.
So how does stress affect your gut, your brain and your beauty? Your gut is engaged in constant two-way communication with your brain via your vagus nerve. Think of the vagus nerve as your internal information superhighway and your gut as your second brain.
Some research suggests that people who are more grateful experience less stress, anxiety and depression, sleep better and have better relationships.
How stress works
Stress activates two main pathways in your body: the pituitary–adrenal axis, which increases production of stress-regulating hormones, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and bowel function.
Both pathways affect your gut function via 100 million nerve endings that lie within the bowel wall (your enteric nervous system). These pathways, along with the brain and enteric nervous system, are referred to as the brain–gut axis.
Stress has been closely linked to gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Numerous studies have shown a relationship between irritable bowel and irritable brain and irritable skin! For example, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is 10 times more prevalent in people suffering from rosacea acne.
Stress can also increase gut permeability, slow digestion, and send inflammatory signals to your central nervous system — and inflammation is a leading contributor to premature aging.
How stress affects your microbiome
Stress can negatively affect your microbiome. This dysbiosis can make you feel fatigued, foggy, anxious, and even depressed. But it works in both directions. Research has shown well-balanced gut microbiota can have a positive effect on your mood, memory, cognition, and skin health.
A healthy gut microbiota is also important for a healthy endocrine and immune system, as 80 per cent of your immune system lies in your microbiome. People with a healthy microbiota have also been found to have a healthier fatty acid profile in their skin, meaning their skin is better hydrated, moisturised and protected. Research has shown that probiotics can help reduce the development of stress-induced disorders in the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract.
Studies on the mind-altering effects of microorganisms and their impact on your gut and brain are showing that the role of diet, probiotics and prebiotics in managing stress and gut disorders is positive, as is the role of relaxation.
Researchers from Harvard released a study showing that meditation can have a significant impact on clinical symptoms of IBS and IBD. The study showed that elicitation of the relaxation response is very helpful. Studies also show that meditation may help slow cellular aging.
Here are five ways to manage stress better to reap the body, brain and skin benefits.
1. Make mealtimes mindful
Stress can cause indigestion, so it’s important to eat mindfully when you feel under pressure. Sitting down away from your devices will help you focus on your food. Pause to take a deep breath and express gratitude for your food. Savor the taste, smell, and texture of your food to stimulate the production of saliva, which contains digestive enzymes that help break down nutrients, increasing their absorption and availability.
2. Sleep more
Getting enough sleep reduces stress and enhances digestion. Interestingly, melatonin — a neurotransmitter produced while we sleep — has a protective effect on stress-induced lesions in the gastrointestinal tract. Studies also show that gut microbes can influence sleep and stress reactivity.
3. Head outside
Studies have shown that spending time in nature is a major health booster and stress reducer. It reduces blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose, and muscle tension. Time outdoors in nature also increases the activity of white blood cells, which help fight bad bacteria, viruses, and tumors. Nature can upregulate brain cognition, empathy, and creativity as well as calm the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps alleviate headaches, inflammation, and depression and boosts skin radiance.
4. Move it
Exercise produces endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, improve sleep, reduce stress, and stabilize mood. Getting physical can actually reduce feelings of fatigue, boost concentration and improve memory. Research has also shown exercise can enhance the number of beneficial microbial species and enrich microflora diversity.
5. Practice gratitude
Keeping a gratitude journal can alter the neural pathways in the brain, increasing energy, focus, and motivation. Some research suggests that people who are more grateful experience less stress, anxiety, and depression, sleep better and have better relationships. Grateful people also suffer from fewer aches and pains, have better heart health, experience a slower rate of cellular aging, and have better skin health.