There’s no denying how influential the gut microbiome is on overall health, and, if you haven’t heard the term ‘microbiome’ by now it may be time to explore this hot topic. Gut health and the digestive tract have been found to impact skin, mood, and immunity, but does it also have a connection to weight? And how does chronic stress impact this picture? Let’s explore.
The gut microbiome is the community of microorganisms (such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses) that exists within our digestive tract and is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses (Harvard School of Public Health 2022). This ecosystem provides the breakdown of food, assists with the absorption of nutrients, and is highly influential on our immune system. In addition, it functions as an endocrine organ involved in conversation and connection with the body (Boulangé et al 2016). Most healthy adults have a similar “core” microbiota species composition and this composition is reached by 2-5 years of age.
The biggest link between having a healthy microbiome and an unhealthy microbiome is ensuring diversity of species within the digestive tract. Diversity can vary based on a variety of factors. These factors include exposure to microbes through food and environment early in life, if someone has been on antibiotics throughout their lifetime, and nutritional intake. In addition, there is also the hygiene hypothesis that suspects increased cleanliness early in life leads to decreased exposure to pathogens and infections, which may lead to a less robust immune system and a less diverse microbiome environment. Low diversity has also been correlated with the “westernized” diet, which contains high content of animal-based proteins, processed meats, saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup, with an associated reduced consumption of fruits. This is in contrast to high microbiome diversity, which is correlated with plant-based nutritional intake consisting of high intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. When the microbiome is not diverse, it allows space for other microbes, that we in the gut health world like to think of as opportunistic, to take its place (Boulangé et al 2016; Lozupone et al 2012).
The connection between nutritional intake and microbial diversity is strong and similar to the correlation between nutritional intake and obesity. Other factors also impact weight gain, weight loss, and weight maintenance including sleep, stress, physical activity, and age. One of the lifestyle factors that continues to peak the interest of researchers is stress. Studies show that both chronic and acute stressors can shift the gut bacteria and shape the gut bacteria (Bailey et al 2011). When the body is stressed, the microbiome composition is altered through the release of stress hormones, metabolites, and signals of inflammation. Metabolites like short-chain fatty acids, secondary bile acids, and liposaccharides modulate appetite, gut motility, energy uptake and expenditure, and energy storage (Tseng et al 2019; Jumpertz et al 2011).
Not only does stress and inflammation have an impact on gut health, but it is also correlated to obesity in a cyclical process. Chronic stress can lead to microbiome, immune, and endocrine changes, as well as behavior changes. These adaptations the body goes through may lead to increases in body fat and adipose tissue dysfunction causing obesity. Then the stress from weight gain and obesity leads to additional stress closing the cyclical process. Long-term stress may increase food cravings, blood pressure and impairs glucose metabolism (Tomiyama 2019; Incollingo et al 2015; Yau & Potenza 2013; Bays et al 2021). As you may be able to see there is a very complex relationship between gut health, obesity, and stress.
So what are some signs one should take a closer look into their gut health? In relation to bowel movements, if one experiences chronic diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain associated with or without stress it may be important to see the impact of microbiome imbalance. In addition, if someone faces unintentional weight changes, migraines, depression, anxiety, or chronic fatigue, the microbiome may be playing a role (Bouter et al 2017; Lach et al 2018).
And what can you do to support a healthier gut microbiome to assist with weight loss?
- Increase intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils
- Consistent eating throughout the day
- For breakfast try HealthWise High Protein Cranberry Oatmeal
- For lunch try Healthwise High Protein Sloppy Joe Light Entree paired with some Brussels sprouts
- For a snack try Healthwise Caramel Sea Salt Lite Bar
- For dinner try HealthWise High Protein Vegan Lentil Curry Light Entree
- Increase hydration
- Try Healthwise Lemon LimeThermogenic Antioxidant Drink Mix to increase water intake and boost energy
- Participate in a joyful movement
Actions to lower stress:
- Have a bedtime wind-down routine
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
- Moderate-intensity exercise each week
- Limit caffeine intake. Limit around 6 hours before bedtime
- Avoid nicotine and alcohol
- Limit exposure to bright light at night. Around 45–60 minutes before sleep
- Learn to identify stressful thoughts
- Breathe: Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and lower cortisol levels
Try supplementation including:
- ○ HealthWise Nature’s Essential Fatty Acids (2-3 g / day)
- ○ Ashwagandha (200-300 mg /day )
Overall, stress impacts day-to-day life but it also impacts your gut health and how it relates to obesity. By decreasing chronic stress one may experience a positive impact on overall health as well as progression of weight loss.
Harvard School of Public Health. (2020). The Nutrition Source – The Microbiome. Accessed June 8th, 2023. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/microbiome/#future-microbiome-research.
Boulangé CL, Neves AL, Chilloux J, Nicholson JK, Dumas ME. Impact of the gut microbiota on inflammation, obesity, and metabolic disease. Genome Med. 2016 Apr 20;8(1):42. doi: 10.1186/s13073-016-0303-2. PMID: 27098727; PMCID: PMC4839080.
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Bailey MT, Dowd SE, Galley JD, Hufnagle AR, Allen RG, Lyte M: Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain Behav Immun 2011, 25:397–407.
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About the Authors:
Katie Chapmon, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in Bariatric Nutrition, GI Issues and Hormonal Health and with 10+ years of hands-on clinical experience for leading medical providers. She is the proud recipient of the 2010 Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year Award and 2018 Excellence in Weight Management Practice Award through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She spent the ﬁrst decade of her career as the lead dietitian for Kaiser Permanente Southern California. For the past several years, she has been working with industry partners and consumers to improve nutrition education within the ﬁeld and maintains a virtual private practice. In April 2021, she launched Bariatric Nutrition Pro – to provide healthcare practitioners education to start (or continue!) their bariatric career with the conﬁdence and knowledge to succeed. She is a past Chair of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Integrated Health Clinical Issues Committee and Chapter author of the 3rd Edition of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Pocket Guide to Bariatric Surgery. She is a national speaker and enjoys time hiking and cooking in the kitchen.