Recently, I shared the following 8 ways to rebuild a healthy intestinal flora:
- Limit processed foods and eat more “real” foods
- Limit antibiotic use
- Probiotic supplementation
- Consume fermented foods
- Bring the outdoors in
- Wash hands with ordinary soap and water
- Focus on mama’s flora
- Prioritize stress management
This week I am writing a whole post on number 8 because the implications of stress have a significant impact on our microbial diversity—and, you may have noticed, stress management is a bit of an Achilles heel in our culture. We seem to underestimate the power of chronic stress because we continue to work hard and long and carry an unbelievable amount of weight on our shoulders.
We have learned that stress is negative for so many aspects of our health, yet we clearly underestimate its power since many of us allow chronic stress to be our norm. Being able to function with chronic stress does not mean it is ok, or healthy. We tend to focus on exercise and diet to improve wellness—while ignoring the fact that our life and work stressors are wrecking our health. In addition to the more commonly recognized effects of stress, the fact that it destroys the health of our microflora should be the final motivator to make us take action.
Many experts emphasize that stress management is as important a factor in bacterial balance and immune health as food. We can eat a clean and healthy diet that is optimal for intestinal health, but if we live with chronic stress we are most likely negating all the benefits of the food.
According to scientists from The Ohio State University, exposure to stress leads to changes in the composition, diversity, and number of gut microorganisms, reducing our microbiome’s ability to protect us. Research in mice has found that an increase in stress results in increases of harmful bacteria and in a reduction of microbial diversity—bad news! Experimental studies have shown that mental stress slows down movement in the small intestine, which encourages the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and compromises the intestinal lining.
Stress’ negative effect on our microbes directly impacts our immune system and contributes to systemic inflammation—it ends up affecting every aspect of our wellness. Remember the Think Outside the Box article two weeks ago that discussed the many health problems that may be a result of imbalanced microbiome? It is extensive! It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of good stress management in the support of our microflora, and therefore overall health.
Controlling stress and anxiety has been a challenge for me personally. I can’t lie—I have a handful of life stressors—with three young kids, a traveling husband and a business and household that demand perpetual TLC. I’m on the move and juggling a lot. I often fall into the trap that stress is harmless as long as I can maintain my responsibilities in life and keep it together. The truth is that this mindset ignores the power and impact of chronic stress on the body. Knowing how harmful stress is to my microbial friends helps motivate me to keep my stress in check. Here are some of the things I am trying to incorporate in my life to proactively get a hold of my stress and salute my friendly critters.
- Soul-Centered Self-Care—This kind of self-care is in alignment with who we are and is NOT based on “shoulds” and “should-nots”—like I should exercise to take care of myself. It is heart-centered and not head-centered, which includes activities or rituals that you crave and naturally help you relax and experience joy. Soaking in hot water and relaxing on the couch does it for me. I’m trying to get these in as often as I can.
- Massage—I recently got a massage and the state of relaxation my body was in after the massage was so clearly a state of restoration that my body seldom experiences. Every cell in my body felt relaxed. Acupuncture has a similar effect on me. I am going to try to budget one 60-minute massage per month—and I already scheduled them to ensure I follow through.
- Mindfulness Meditation—Sitting down and focusing on our breath naturally gets us to slow down and shed undue tension. I just started carving out 10-15 minutes each morning for meditation and it is making a big difference in how I approach my day—less stress and more patience. Learn more about basic mindfulness meditation techniques.
- Gratitude —Being grateful for what we have turns our active anxious body state into one that is relaxed and open. When I feel anxious, irritated, and stressed, I try to shift my mindset to gratitude for what is going well and smooth in my life.
- Yoga — I have been going to yoga once a week over the lunch hour. I drag my feet to the door every week because I feel “too busy,” however, when I leave the studio I feel relaxed, grounded and rejuvenated. It is a reset to my day—and I swear I am more productive and focused.
- Slowing Down — Sometimes when we slow down and do less we actually accomplish more. I try to remind myself that I don’t always have to be moving nor do I need to rush through life. “Slow. Down. Sarah.”—my new mantra.
- Conscious Breathing — 4-7-8 breathing from Dr. Andrew Weil is my favorite breathing technique. Aim to do it twice daily and when you find yourself in the midst of a stressful situation.
So, in addition to chugging Kombucha, eating yogurt, popping probiotics, and getting a fermented food fix, add some stress reducers to the microbial mix. The benefits are countless and priceless. Send me a message if you want a free digital copy of Chapter 4 in my book Full Plate for more stress reducing ideas.
Since our gut microbes are the frontline of our immune system and responsible for keeping all of our systems in check, it is vitally important to nurture them. Good stress management is one of the best ways to do so. If we take good care of our one hundred trillion little companions, they will return the favor!
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.