Stress is one of those things most people know they need less of, but struggle to actually put that in practice. Now, here’s more motivation to try cut back on your stress levels: It could wreck havoc on your health.
According to a new mouse study published in the journal Scientific Reports, stress can negatively impact your gut microbiota (the microorganisms that are crucial to your digestive and metabolic health) the same way as eating a junk food diet. For the study, researchers took a group of 8-week-old mice and exposed half of the males and half of the females to a high-fat diet. When they were 16 weeks old, all of the mice were exposed to mild stress for 18 days. The researchers took microbial DNA from the mice’s fecal matter before and after they were stressed to see how their gut microbiota was impacted, and also measured the animals’ anxiety levels.
Here’s what they found: Male mice who ate a high-fat diet had more anxiety than the females on the same diet, and also were less active after they were stressed. But the female mice who were stressed actually had a change in their gut microbiota that was the same as those who were on the high-fat diet.
Sure, the study was conducted on mice not humans and it’s hard to definitely say if stress would impact people the exact same way. Still, the study’s researchers say it’s likely that women experience something similar, especially given that women have higher rates of depression and anxiety which are linked to stress. Women may also experience stress differently than men. “It may be that the ability to feel and intuit emotional needs, as well as potential threat, has been more genetically conserved in women than in men,” licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, who did not work on the study, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Being more emotionally sensitive can be an advantage in some areas, like when you’re caring for your children, she says, but may make women more prone to being deeply impacted by stress.
The link between your gut microbiota and stress isn’t new. Research shows that your gut microbiota may place a crucial role in the availability of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin, which allows your mind to relax, Beth Warren, RDN, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you don’t make enough serotonin, you will be more susceptible to symptoms of stress,” she says. And stress can deplete your healthy gut bacteria.
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that help regulate your overall health, including digestive, emotional, hormonal, and physical health, Warren says. If you’re chronically stressed, it will tax your immune system and leave you open to feeling depressed, getting sick, and gaining weight, she adds.
Of course, stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. But the problem is when it becomes chronic and pervasive. “The solution is how you cope with it,” licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance In Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “If you are feeling stressed all the time, it means your coping strategies are not working.”
If your stress feels like it’s too much lately, it’s a good idea to talk to a trusted friend, family member, or colleague to help you figure out how you can take back control, Clark says. “Understanding what your stress is illustrating is a key step in understanding how you can use it more effectively,” she says. It’s also a good idea to try to find more than one coping mechanism in case one fails you in a particular situation, Mayer says, listing meditation, mindfulness, and exercise as good options.
If you do feel stressed (and it’s going to happen), it’s important not to make things worse by resisting it, Clark says. “Our stress response can be helpful in giving us the boost we need to cope,” she says. And, if it feels like your stress is too much lately, it might be time to bring in a professional for help. Your overall health depends on it.