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Gut bacteria could reverse stress damage
August 15, 2018, 4:02 pm

Modern life comes loaded with stresses that have a harmful impact on our bodies. A new study now suggests that a high-fiber diet that promotes the growth of bacteria in the intestine could relieve some of the stresses that build up as part of our daily grind.

The influence that billions of bacteria living in our gut have on gastrointestinal issues has been apparent for some time. The fact that these bacteria also play a role in mental health, such as in depression and anxiety, has been the subject of study only recently 

Although the thought of intestinal microorganisms impacting our mental wellbeing might sound stretched, the gut and brain are deeply entwined. For instance, most people know how a stressful situation can influence the speed of our bowels, and how being hungry can affect our mood and often make us ‘hangry’.

A recent study found that high levels of stress can affect gut bacteria to a similar degree as a high-fat diet; while other studies have shown that reducing the number of bacteria in the gut can produce stress-induced activity in mice. So, it appears that stress can alter gut bacteria, and gut bacteria can influence stress levels.

A new study by researchers at the University College Cork in Ireland takes a fresh look at how gut bacteria are involved in gut health problems induced by stress. The scientists were interested in short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that bacteria produce when they digest fiber in the gut. The SCFA is then utilized by other cells in the colon as their primary source of energy, which makes the SCFA vital for good gut health.

The researchers found that when they introduced SCFAs to the guts of mice, stress and anxiety-based behaviors were significantly reduced. After demonstrating that SCFAs reduce anxiety, the researchers wanted to understand how these small molecules influenced physical, stress-related gut damage.

It has been shown that high levels of stress over time increase the intestine's permeability, in a phenomenon known as ‘leaky’ gut, which allows particles such as bacteria and undigested food to pass from the intestine into the bloodstream causing damaging chronic inflammation. The researchers found that by introducing SCFAs, they reduced the gut leakiness caused by persistent stress.

Fruits, vegetables, and grains naturally contain high levels of fiber. Although this study was conducted on mice, the inference is that a high-fiber diet might prompt gut bacteria to produce more SCFAs — thereby bolstering our gut's natural defenses against the damage caused by stress.

The research team admits that more research will be necessary before it can be conclusively proven that SCFA in gut ameliorates stress-related disorders in humans. 

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