While stress can feel unavoidable in our day-to-day- lives, it’s important to remember that it is a reaction, which means you can control it to some extent, choosing which action you’ll take when faced with a stressor. Understanding that when you do get stressed it sets off a physical chain reaction, you can begin to recognize just how important it is to manage your stress. According to a publication from the Harvard Medical School, “When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus”. When it does, the command center of the brain takes action, sending signals through the nervous system to the rest of your body, including, of course, your gut.
When limited, this chain reaction isn’t problematic or even harmful. In fact, stress can be very natural and part of a healthy life. The problem, however, is when cortisol, the hormone that is released from your brain when you’re stressed (or perceived to be threatened), builds up. As cortisol increases in your brain, the build-up can have serious long-term effects, which can manifest physically and emotionally.
One of the ways that cortisol negatively impacts your brain is that it disrupts synapse regulation. As a result, you can feel less social and opt out of social interactions you may have truly enjoyed in the past. Furthermore, long-term stress actually kills brain cells and, in some cases, even reduces the size of your brain by shrinking your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that helps you remember and learn.
And then, of course, you have to deal with the way stress impacts your gut.
As your brain releases cortisol and communicates to your gut via your vagus nerve, gut hormones, and your immune system, it affects the microbiota (“an ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms”) in your gut. As a result, stress can not only lead to anxiety and depression, but also to issues like irritable bowel syndrome. With results from more research highlighting this gut-brain connection, it’s becoming more apparent that your gut microbiota influences stress-related behaviors.
Because of this inextricable connection, the health of your gut plays a role in the health of your brain. Since stress can wreak havoc on your brain, helping your gut retain its health can minimize (and even reverse) the damage taking place. In other words, by having healthy bacteria in your gut, you can improve the way the brain develops and functions, making it important for children and adults alike.
While young adults, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), can more quickly recover from the effects of stress, older individuals need to pay extra attention to how much stress they are experiencing each day. If stress builds up, adults can have a difficult time repairing and creating neural pathways in their brains. In addition to taking care of the bacteria in the gut, adults can use regular exercise, socialization, and meaningful hobbies to encourage the brain’s plasticity and help it recover from the damage caused by chronic stress.