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Stress and the microbiome: the gut-brain connection

Published 28 March 2023

Latest figures tell us that 74% of UK adults experience stress to the point where they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Keeping active, meditation, massages... these are all great ways of dealing with stress. But did you know that your gut microbiome has an affect on stress too?

To find out more, we spoke to gut health dietitian Dr Caitlin Hall, PhD, from myota, the dietary fibre blend that boosts gut health. She told us all about the gut-brain connection and how we can use this knowledge to better manage our stress response. Read on for her top tips.

Dad and child cutting up fruit

The gut-brain axis is a two-way street

When we're feeling anxious or stressed, this often aggravates gut-related symptoms, like stomach pain, diarrhoea, bloating, and constipation. The same is true the other way around: when our gut isn’t working properly, neither are we.

“A lot of what we know about the gut-brain axis initially came from studies in mice," says Dr Hall. "What researchers found was that if you transfer the faecal gut microbiota from a stressed mouse into a normal mouse, they begin to display stress, anxiety, and depressive behaviours too.

The reverse was also true. Transferring the gut microbiota from a healthy mouse to a stressed mouse had a protective effect. These studies were the first to show the strong and direct effect that the gut can have on stress, mood, and behaviour.”

What can we do about it? Keep using whatever stress-busting techniques work for you. Be it yoga, breathing, massage or saunas. Turns out they’re not just good for your mental health but your gut too!

Eat better, stress less

In the past 10 years, we've seen promising research in humans showing we can improve our responses to stress through diet (with fibre in particular).

A recent study by APC Microbiome Ireland found that people who ate a ‘psychobiotic’ diet – focusing on prebiotic fibre, legumes, and fermented foods – felt less stressed than those who didn't change their diet.

So, what is a psychobiotic diet?

A psychobiotic diet focuses on foods that improve your mental health. In the study mentioned above, participants were given diet instructions created by nutritionist Dr Kirsten Berding:

  • 6-8 servings daily of fruits and vegetables high in prebiotic fibres (like onions, leeks, cabbage, apples, bananas and oats)

  • 5-8 servings of grains per day

  • 3-4 servings of legumes per week

  • 2-3 servings of fermented foods daily (like sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha)

Dr Hall explains: “What we now know is that when you consume prebiotic fibres (found in foods like chicory root, leek, onion, garlic, bananas) your beneficial bacteria produce anti-inflammatory substances called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

SCFAs can interact with your brain via many different pathways, including the vagus nerve, immune system, and hormones.” 

In a recent study, healthy volunteers were given SCFAs (released directly into the large intestine). The result? They felt less stressed and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Deep tissue massage treatment

Massage for a happy gut

Massage has been shown to aid relaxation and reduce stress. But it can also help your gut health. For your digestive system to function, you need everything to flow.

Lymphatic drainage massage is particularly beneficial when it comes to stress. When massage strokes increase blood circulation they encourage your lymph system to flow, helping flush toxins and waste products. Here are some of the gut-boosting effects of regular lymphatic drainage massage:

  • Encourages your lymph system to flow, helping flush toxins and waste products

  • Helps ease water retention

  • Releases air and gas from the body

  • Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to relax your body

  • Relieves tension and relaxes muscles to improve digestion and encourage bowel movements

With regular lymphatic drainage massage, exercise and a balanced, ‘psychobiotic’ diet, you can really optimise that gut-brain connection for a happier, healthier you.

Looking to add a fibre supplement to your diet? Myota's prebiotic fibre blends have been tested across hundreds of different gut microbiomes to make sure they produce those all important SCFAs. Try myota’s Immunity Booster or Metabolic Booster blends with 15% off when you use the code URBAN15.