Stress and Your Gut

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

We’ve known for a long time that mental stress is linked to gut problems and flare-ups of GI conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). 

new study (January 23, 2024) provides some additional details about the precise biochemical changes that stress causes in the gut – and suggests some clues to reducing gut stress at the level of the microbiome.

About 1 in 10 people struggle with IBS (which causes abdominal pain and diarrhea) and approximately 10 million people around the world suffer with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), which causes inflammation of the intestines and triggers similar or even more severe symptoms. 

In the new study, metabolism researchers at the China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, exposed mice to chronic stress for two weeks and found reduced levels of cells that help to protect the intestines from pathogens, compared with mice that weren’t stressed. This is because the metabolism of intestinal stem cells (ISCs) that normally transform into these protector cells was malfunctioning.

Previous studies have shown that activating the body’s “fight or flight” system (sympathetic nervous system), which is often triggered by mental stress, can reshape the microbiome, including  changes in levels of multiple bacterial species from the genera such as LactobacillusBacteroides, and Streptococcus under stress. Some bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus, which naturally occur in the gut and proliferate under stressful conditions, produce a chemical called indole-3-acetate (IAA). The researchers found that a raised level of IAA, triggered by stress, was preventing the mouse intestinal stem cells (ISCs) from becoming protector cells.

Intestinal stem cells (ISCs) are essential for intestinal epithelial renewal and homeostasis in response to various challenges. ISCs are well known to mount dynamic responses to various niche signals from adjacent Paneth cells, stromal, and immune cells, as well as diverse external cues such as dietary components and the microbiome.

In related research, the scientists also found elevated levels of both Lactobacillus bacteria and IAA in the feces of people with depression, compared with that of people without it.

Whenever WE suffer from stress, our GUT MICROBIOME also suffers from stress!

A possible “antidote” for gut stress might be a supplement called ?-ketoglutarate (AKG), which is taken by some athletes to stimulate muscle growth and reduce muscle breakdown, and in this study seemed to kick-start the metabolism of the impaired microbial stem cells. AKG can serve as a precursor of the amino acids glutamate and glutamine, which are a central metabolic fuel for gastrointestinal cells. Recently AKG has been touted as an “anti-aging” supplement for its wide-ranging benefits on overall metabolism, including supporting muscle and gut health as well as as mitochondrial function (as a key molecule in the production of ATP).

To summarize…

  1. Mental stress activates the sympathetic nervous system
  2. SNS activation stimulates growth of lactobacillus murinus species and production of IAA (indoor-3-acetate)
  3. IAA interferes with mitochondrial function of intestinal stem cells (ISCs) – leading to damage to the gut lining
  4. Alpha-Keto-Glutarate (AKG) prevents the metabolic impairment in mitochondria and prevents gut damage

What else can we do?

In addition to AKG, what other supplements can support mitochondrial bioenergetics?

  • Polyphenols/Flavonoids (resveratrol, quercetin, pterostilbene, urolithin A) 
  • B-complex vitamins 
  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Co-Q10 (coenzyme Q10)
  • Carnosine
  • Alpha-Lipoic Acid (ALA)
  • N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC)
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALC)
  • Taurine
  • PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone)
  • Ribose
    • NAD = Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide
    • NMN = Nicotinamide mononucleotide
    • NR =  Nicotinamide riboside 

How can you get more of these building blocks in your diet?

Eat more of the “Mediterranean Diet” – also known as the “Mental Fitness Diet”

This dietary pattern is rich in the “3 F’s” (fibers, fermented foods, and flavonoids) as well as B-vitamins (fruits & veggies), magnesium (nuts & seeds), omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish), and amino acids (lean proteins and fermented dairy such as yogurt/kefir/cheese)…

-Good for the Gut

-Healthy for the Heart

-Boosts the Brain

Here is a new study about how important it is to FOLLOW this type of dietary pattern – published on January 27, 2024…

Association of Mediterranean diet with sleep quality, depression, anxiety, stress, and body mass index in university students: A cross-sectional study


Background: The Mediterranean diet (MD) has many beneficial effects on health. However, compliance with MD is decreasing among university students. 

Aim: This study aims to investigate compliance with the MD and the association of MD with sleep quality, depression, anxiety, stress, and body mass index (BMI) among university students. 

Methods: This cross-sectional study included 750 students of Ondokuz May?s University, a state university in Samsun, Türkiye. Sociodemographic data and self-reported anthropometric data (weight and height) were recorded using a survey. The Mediterranean diet quality index for children and adolescents (KIDMED), the Pittsburgh sleep quality index (PSQI), and the depression anxiety stress scale-42 (DASS-42) were self-administered. 

Results: Most students (59.2%) had poor KIDMED adherence. Compared to poor adherers, those with good adherence to the KIDMED had significantly lower depression scores (in males and females). Higher adherence to the KIDMED was correlated with lower depression and stress levels (in males and females) and lower PSQI scores (lower sleep disturbances) in females

Conclusion: University students show poor adherence to the MD. Low adherence to the MD may have a negative impact on depression, stress, and sleep quality. This study suggests that interventions to promote MD may help improve university students’ sleep disturbances and mental health.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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