Stress Ushers in Harm Through Microbiome

Cultivating Our Gut Microbiome to Stifle Disease Series (Part 9)

Stress Ushers in Harm Through Microbiome
The gut-brain connection. (Inkoly/Shutterstock)
Amy Denney

In this series, we'll share how the latest developments in this medical frontier are transforming our approaches to illness and offering new strategies to heal and prevent disease.

Previously: Treating gut-related problems through testing and diet

A widely cited statistic that appears in several studies says that stress-related complaints are linked to 75 percent to 90 percent of doctor visits. Stress suppresses the immune system, causes the largest volume of lost work days, triggers episodes in diseases from asthma to gastrointestinal disorders, and is a major factor in top-killing diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Stress appears to do this damage in part by influencing our gut microbiome. This symbiotic community of microbes that live inside us is made of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi—and it's very vulnerable to changes in its environment, the human body.
This influence takes place via the gut-brain axis, or more specifically the gut-brain-microbiome axis, an information superhighway between the gut and the brain. Each end is sending and receiving messages that influence countless processes in the body. Disruptions at either end can cause problems at the other, including psychological and neurological disorders.

Modern Stress

Normal sources of stress, such as overworking the muscles, can trigger the body to strengthen itself by building stronger muscles, improving metabolism, or making the bones denser. Appropriate stress is essential to tempering the mind and body.

Unfortunately, we live in an era of inappropriate and ongoing stress from sources such as environmental contaminants, fear-mongering in the news, rising debt, and digital apps designed to trigger us to keep scrolling. This stress triggers a cascade of biochemical changes in the body.

We understand some of those changes quite well, like a rise in certain hormones and a shift from the rest-and-digest roles of the parasympathetic nervous system to the fight-or-flight roles of the sympathetic nervous system. Along with shutting down digestion, this fight-or-flight state also sacrifices long-term healing and restorative functions for an immediate focus on survival by speeding up our heart rate and prompting our liver to release glucose into the bloodstream to give us a burst of energy.

Stress, according to naturopathic doctor Doni Wilson, is the root cause of most health symptoms. Wilson, author of “Master Your Stress, Reset Your Health,” highlights the role stress plays in epigenetics, which is how our behaviors and environment affect our genes.

“Our environmental exposures are what turn on our genetic expression. It’s the stress exposure that turns on our autoimmunity,” Wilson told The Epoch Times. Wilson says the mediator of that influence, the thing that translates external stressors into internal shifts in our genes, is often our microbiome. “We know we have to be paying attention to our gut bacteria, because gut bacteria are influencing everything.”

Your body contains an incredible amount of DNA, but not all of it is yours. The DNA in your own cells is fairly stable. But up to 99 percent of the DNA in your body actually belongs to microbes, and those microbes change and adapt very quickly, with corresponding changes in their DNA.

And those changes can leave us with a series of problems, reaching all the way to the brain.

Much recent work has implicated the gut microbiota in many conditions including autism, anxiety, obesity, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

How Stress Achieves Destruction

A 2019 review of previous research, "The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis," took a deep look at the mechanisms by which the brain communicates with the microbiome. The review, which was published in Physiological Reviews, summarizes a complex relationship.

“The microbiota and the brain communicate with each other via various routes including the immune system, tryptophan metabolism, the vagus nerve and the enteric nervous system, involving microbial metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids, branched chain amino acids, and peptidoglycans,” the authors note.

And since anything that affects the health of the microbiome inevitably affects the rest of the body, that relationship has drawn intense focus from researchers.

“Once it was understood that our commensal friends in the gut could effectively communicate with our brain, a rush of studies sought to understand the intricate processes involved," the Physiological Reviews article notes.

It's well documented that the gut and brain have an intense amount of communication, thanks to the discovery of the enteric nervous system, which has been nicknamed “the second brain” because it's a quasi-autonomous part of the nervous system with big responsibilities and a tremendous number of neurons.

Scientists are now discovering that our microbes have a big role in that interplay, in part because they create many of the key metabolites our body uses for any number of functions. Just as our cells are like little factories pumping out different chemicals and compounds, so too are our microbes.

“Over recent decades, the fields of microbiology and neuroscience have become ever more entwined,” the Physiological Reviews article notes.

The bacteria in the gut create many critical hormones and also play a role in the creation of neurotransmitters.

“The gastrointestinal tract is the largest endocrine organ in mammals, secreting dozens of different signaling molecules,” a 2017 article in Neurotherapeutics states.

We now also know that neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, are active in the brain as well as in the gut.

"These neurotransmitters are able to regulate and control not only blood flow, but also affect gut motility, nutrient absorption, GI innate immune system, and the microbiome," notes a research review published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology in 2016.

One of those key bits of biochemistry our gut microbiome does is produce our main supply of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

Research has linked chronic stress to low levels of SCFAs, which are the metabolites produced when our gut bacteria digest fiber in the colon.
Both SCFAs and the vagal nerve appear to play roles in potential pathways that influence the gut-brain axis, according to a 2020 article in Frontiers in Endocrinology.

Indirectly, SCFAs interact with the brain by inducing the secretion of gut hormones, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin. GABA is an amino acid that has a role in promoting a calm state, and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood with feelings of happiness.

If our microbes aren't creating SCFAs, we’re in trouble. The acids influence neuroinflammation in the central nervous system and play a part in neurogenesis (the brain's process of making new neurons), contribute to the production of serotonin, and improve neural homeostasis and function.

Taken together, SCFAs' influence on the brain can impact emotion, cognition, and changes associated with disease and injury.

And stress can impair their very creation.

Prioritizing Anti-Stress Activities

One stress-reducing activity that can influence the composition of the microbiome is practicing mindfulness, particularly meditation, which seems to get a nod in almost every functional physician’s playbook.

“I’m a big fan of meditation. Meditation is a very simple but powerful tool,” integrative physician Dr. Akil Palanisamy told The Epoch Times.

Wilson said choosing what she calls “anti-stress” activities every day will help the body return to homeostasis after stress triggers, improve the microbiome, and even allow for weight loss. She uses the acronym CARE—clean eating, adequate sleep, recovery, and exercise—as a reminder to choose daily self-care.

“For a lot of people, when they are stressed, they hold onto weight,” she said. “Once we are doing the anti-stress activities daily, we’re sending all the right signals to the body. We need to get better at integrating that into every day.”

Ways to Reduce Stress

Dr. William Li offers the following tips for reducing stress, in his book "Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, and Live Longer."
Get Support: Talk to a trusted friend about your struggles, and consider speaking to a trained therapist if you need more support.
Meditate: Mindfulness practices such as meditation train the brain to stay focused on the present, rather than thinking about the past and the future, which can trigger fears, depression, and worry.
Drink Tea: Certain teas such as green tea and chamomile tea can help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Improve Your Sleep: Sleep quality is associated with the state of the microbiome.
Exercise Regularly: Physical activity can help to relieve stress, improve sleep, improve chronic pain, and regulate the microbiome.
Delegate: Let some things go that don’t need to be done by you—prioritize tasks or assign them to others.
Breathe: Breathing exercises can lower cortisol, a hormone associated with stress that can suppress the immune system.
Manage Anger: Avoid those things that trigger anger, if you’re able. Address anger with humor, exercise, or professional help.
Practice Regular Self-Care: Do those things you know help you lower your stress, and prioritize a few minutes each day to tend to your own needs.

Profile of a Top Bug

Bifidobacteria appear to play a role in the gut-brain axis. Certain strains of Bifidobacteria—more than 250 subtypes have been identified—seem to have a beneficial impact on depression and anxiety. Studies also show taking Bifidobacteria as a probiotic can reduce inflammation in diabetes, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis.
Bifidobacteria are among the first five species to colonize a newborn’s gut. They can make up as much as 90 percent or more of a baby’s microbiome, but it gradually declines by age 3 and begins to look more like an adult microbiome, with around 5 percent.
Bifidobacteria play an enormous role in early immune system development, protect against pathogens, and help to synthesize B vitamins and antioxidants. They also help to maintain healthy intestinal permeability and lower inflammatory levels, in part by producing the short-chain fatty acids acetate and lactate.

Information adapted from The T.I.G.E.R. Protocol by Akil Palanisamy, MD. Copyright 2023 by Akil Palanisamy, MD. With permission from Balance, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Amy Denney is a health reporter for The Epoch Times. Amy has a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield and has won several awards for investigative and health reporting. She covers the microbiome, new treatments, and integrative wellness.