Could a healthy gut microbiome make you more resilient?

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New research examines the relationship between the gut microbiome and a person’s ability to manage stress. Design by MNT; Photography by STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images & Serge Filimonov/Stocksy
  • A new study suggests a strong link between a healthy gut microbiome and greater resilience in the face of stress.
  • A healthy gut results in lower levels of inflammation and more reliably produces important neurotransmitters.
  • The relationship between the gut and brain is also bidirectional since psychologically driven poor eating habits can impact gut health.
  • Experts say the best way to maintain one’s gut microbiome is with a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, and physical activity.

Many experts refer to stress as an epidemic since it can take a toll on mental and physical health if left unmanaged.

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2022 report, stress largely immobilized 37% of adults in the United States that year, rendering them unable to fulfill many basic daily tasks.

In the APA’s 2023 survey, chronic stress among Americans had leaped from 31% reported in 2019 to 45% reported in 2023.

Resilience is a quality that allows a person to respond to stress more effectively through a level-headed acceptance of change, tenacity, and an ability to recover from difficult events.

A new UCLA study finds that people who are resilient in the face of stress tend to have healthy gut microbiomes. The strong link between gut and brain health underscores the complex interplay between the organs and multiple systems within the human body.

The study is published in Nature Mental Health.

For the study, researchers from UCLA’s Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center surveyed 116 people regarding how resilient they felt they were in the face of adversity.

All participants submitted a stool sample to the researchers and, a few days later, underwent fMRI brain scans to examine activity in different brain regions. The stool samples of the more resilient individuals had less inflammatory bacteria and exhibited signs of robust integrity in their gut barrier.

One of the study’s goals was to differ from previous research investigating the negative impacts of an unhealthy gut on the brain by looking at things from a positive angle.

The authors say their findings suggest a complex interrelationship between the gut and brain in which resilience benefits psychological, emotional, and cognitive function.

The researchers used the Connor–Davidson Resilience Scale (CDRisc) to score participants’ resilience in the study. The scale allows participants to record their degree of resilience by responding to 25 questions, with one of five answers ranging from 0 (not true at all) to 4 (nearly all the time).

Five areas comprise resilience in the CDRisc:

  1. Personal competence, tenacity, and having high standards.
  2. Faith in one’s instincts and tolerance of stress’s negative and strengthening effects.
  3. Positive acceptance of change and having secure personal relationships
  4. Control.
  5. Spiritual influences.

For U.S. residents, the mean CDRisc score is 80.7.

Several major connections between the gut and the brain help explain their effect on each other. Prior research has found that the gut microbiome can regulate anxiety levels.

Our understanding of the relationship between how the gut microbiome can affect anxiety is still evolving, but this study highlights a new connection with our resiliency.

“The health of your gut, the integrity of the bacteria that are present is basically going to impact how healthy the lining of the gut is, whether or not it’s inflamed,” David Merrill, MD, PhD, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, CA, explained to Medical News Today. Merrill was not involved in the study.

When the gut becomes inflamed, it may become “leaky” and less effective at holding on to and accessing nutrients.

“Chronic inflammation is linked to various mental health disorders, and reducing inflammation can help support improved brain function and emotional stability,” noted Michelle Routhenstein, RDN, a preventive cardiology dietitian at EntirelyNourished.com, not involved in the study.

There is also a direct connection between the gut and brain along the vagus nerve that directly connects the two.

Via this “superhighway,” the gut sends to the brain short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) produced through the fermentation of dietary fiber in the digestive system.

“SCFAs play an important role in maintaining gut health and may have beneficial effects on brain function and mood regulation. They help promote the production of beneficial neurotransmitters and help reduce inflammation in the brain,” Routhenstein said.

Among these neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. Roughly 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, as is 50% of dopamine.

The gut-brain connection is a given, Merrill said. “If you feel like crud and don’t think that you’re worth taking care of, you’re going to eat junk food and all the processed foods and are going to have pathological bacteria, so your gut’s gonna fall apart,” Merrill noted.

Routhenstein’s advice for gut health began with diet:

“Consuming a diverse array of fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains may support a healthy gut microbiome. These foods not only nourish your body but also may enhance stress management by providing essential nutrients crucial for optimal health, energy, and productivity.”

She also recommended including probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods that “help feed the beneficial gut bacteria.” These are found in specific vegetables, such as:

Following a consistent and sufficient sleep routine is equally important to gut and mental health since disrupted sleep has been linked to higher stress levels. Physical activity also supports gut health and its known benefits for overall health.

Read the full article here

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