How to Promote Gut Health When Stressed
Published February 27, 2023
While stress is a normal part of life, too much can be a problem for your health. Luckily, there are nutrition-focused ways to promote gut health during stressful times.
The human gut is a complex organ. Did you know that there are more bacteria in the gut than cells in the human body3? These bacteria communicate with the rest of the body to help you digest your food, prevent sickness, and regulate your mood2. However, experiencing too much stress can negatively impact the health of our gut. Fortunately, there are diet-related strategies to support your gut health. Here are four nutrition-focused ways to promote your gut health when stressed.
Protein-rich foods may help with gut health during times of stress. Proteins in your daily diet come from building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids help send messages throughout the body. These signals have roles in the brain to regulate your emotional state. When you eat a variety of protein-containing foods throughout the day, you help your body produce the necessary signals to support your mood. In other words, inadequate protein consumption can negatively impact your mood. These messages also connect your brain to your gut. While these two organs are far apart in the body, they carry messages to each other. So ultimately, stress on the body impacts the health of our gut.
For adults, aim to fill ¼ of your plate with protein-rich food. Protein foods include animal foods such as chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, eggs, cheeses, and plant foods such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy foods. In addition to consuming proteins during mealtime, try to include protein-rich foods in your snacks. Greek yogurt, nut butter with fruit, roasted chickpeas, and hummus with veggies can be delicious, convenient, and easy protein-rich snacks to have on hand.
In addition to protein, probiotics also affect the signals sent throughout the body. Probiotics are live microorganisms within foods that have health benefits when consumed. Probiotic-rich foods contain these live microorganisms. The microorganisms help the good bacteria in your gut and send signals to the brain. These signals influence your mood and how you respond to stress. The gut-brain axis refers to the connection between your gut and brain.
Active probiotics sold in supplement form are common, but food items readily contain probiotics too. Foods that have probiotics include fermented and cultured foods. Cooking or canning probiotic-rich foods can destroy the live microorganisms. This means they no longer contain live cultures. To find live cultures in the grocery store, check in the refrigerator section for “contains live cultures” on the label. Probiotic-containing foods include yogurt, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
Another way to reduce the effects stress has on your gut is by including fiber in your diet. Fiber is a part of plant-based foods that the human body is unable to break down. Our bodies benefit from fiber because it helps the good bacteria in our gut thrive by decreasing inflammation. Inflammation in the gut can affect brain function, promoting anxiety, depression, and stress4.
Some high-fiber food options include:
Beans and Lentils: beluga lentils, black beans, chickpeas, edamame, and split peas
Fruits: apples, avocados, pears, kiwis, mangos, plums, and raspberries
Nuts and Seeds: almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds,
Vegetables: artichokes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, eggplant, kale, and Swiss chard
Whole Grains: barley, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, and whole wheat pasta and bread
Prebiotics can promote gut health when you are stressed. Prebiotics, like fiber, are part of food our bodies cannot break down. However, the microbes within your gut can digest and utilize them. Digestion of the prebiotics helps stimulate activity of the healthy bacteria within your gut. Prebiotics can also decrease inflammation in the gut. There is a link between reduced inflammation in the gut and lower rates of anxiety, depression, and stress. So, by including prebiotic food components in our diet, we can help our gut health and minimize the effects of stress on the body.
Foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables have naturally containing prebiotics. High prebiotics-containing foods include dandelion greens, garlic, chicory root, onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, whole oats, and apples1. However, if you eat a diet full of a variety of plants, you are likely getting enough prebiotics.
While some amounts of stress are healthy, too much stress can upset the balance of bacteria within the gut. Try to include protein, probiotics, prebiotics, and fibers into your routine to lessen the effects of stress on your gut. For more information about stress reduction and gut health, make an appointment at Bastyr Center for Natural Health. Please give us a call at (206) 834-4100 or visit the Bastyr Center for Natural Health Clinic at www.bastyrcenter.org.
About the Author
Nicolette Schnettgoecke is a Dietetic Intern at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is an advocate for integrative and functional health models. When she is not studying, she enjoys spending time outside riding her bike, hiking, and rock climbing.
Brennan D. (2020, November) 8 foods high in prebiotics and why you need them. WebMD. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-prebiotic
Carpenter, D. S. (2012, September). That gut feeling. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling
Holmes, A., & Rosewarne, C. (2019, September 19). Gut bacteria: The inside story. Gut bacteria: the inside story. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from https://www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/gut-bacteria
Jane, F., Linda, R., John, C. (2017, December) Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289516300509