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Stress Causes as Much Harm to Digestive System as Junk Food


The negative effects of stress on overall health can’t be overstated. A new study has suggested that it causes as much harm to the microbial community in the female gut as a high-fat diet. Because the gut plays a vital role in digestion, metabolism and immunity, the findings underscore how important it is to manage stress.

“Stress can be harmful in a lot of ways, but this research is novel in that it ties stress to female-specific changes in the gut microbiota,” said researcher Laura Bridgewater, professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University. “We sometimes think of stress as a purely psychological phenomenon, but it causes distinct physical changes.”

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In the study, Bridgewater and her team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China dealt with a large group of 8-week-old mice. Half the males and half the females were fed a high-fat diet. After 16 weeks, all the mice were exposed to an 18-day-long session of mild stress.

To assess the effects of stress on the microbiota, the researchers tested fecal pellets of the mice for microbial DNA. They also measured the degree of anxiety of the rodents by monitoring how much they traveled in an open field.

Stress Caused Changes in Gut Microbiota in Female Mice

The findings revealed differences between the two genders. Among the mice on the high-fat diet, the males had higher levels of anxiety than the females. In response to stress, the males on the high-fat diet displayed reduced activity. However, among the mice on the standard diet, only the female mice experienced changes in the gut microbiota that resembled those that occurred in both genders of mice on a high-fat diet.

Although the study involved mice, the research team believes it could have significant implications for humans. This means that stress may cause the same damage to women’s gut health as consuming a diet high in unhealthy fat from junk food like chips, burgers and ice cream.

“In society, women tend to have higher rates of depression and anxiety, which are linked to stress” said Bridgewater, who also serves as Associate Dean of the BYU College of Life Sciences. “This study suggests that a possible source of the gender discrepancy may be the different ways gut microbiota responds to stress in males vs. females.”

The study was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

The Best Ways to Deal with Stress

Stress can come from job pressures, relationship difficulties and innumerable other sources, but we can take steps to minimize it. Exercise is likely the most critical part of any stress-management program, as exercise in almost any form alleviates stress. Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins, the chemicals that elevate mood and produce a sense of well-being. It also relieves anxiety and symptoms of mild depression, as well as promotes higher energy levels and better sleep. Upping your intake of certain nutrients can fight off stress too. Learn more in our article 6 Nutrients That Counteract the Negative Effects of Stress.

Experts advocate the avoidance of unhealthful stress responses such as eating high-calorie food or drink, or drinking alcohol. The American Psychology Association recommends taking a break from stessors when possible, in addition to sharing concerns with a supportive friend or family member. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, volunteering in the community and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can also help.


Mary West is a natural health enthusiast, as she believes this area can profoundly enhance wellness. She is the creator of a natural healing website where she focuses on solutions to health problems that work without side effects. You can visit her site and learn more at Ms. West is also the author of Fight Cancer Through Powerful Natural Strategies.

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