We’ve all probably been there before. When we’re going through a particularly rough time or stressful series of events, we may notice a change in our bathroom habits. Perhaps we’re plagued by constipation, diarrhea, worsened odor, painful bowel movements… all of these are signs that something is out of balance. And while it’s good advice to take a look your diet and take steps to make it healthier, it could be just as important to put your stress levels under the microscope.
The gut-brain axis is the bidirectional exchange of information between, you guessed it, our guts and our brains. The essence of the mind-body connection, if you will. From the time we are born, our gastrointestinal system is starting its collection of bacteria with the goal of creating the most balanced ecosystem it can in our guts. There has been much research done on the powerful signals transmitted on this axis, including how psychiatric disorders can be correlated with imbalances.
Imbalances with gut health are leading suspects when anxiety and depression symptoms are present. In studies with mice, infection and inflammation in the GI system are directly linked to presentations of anxiety and, predictably, the use of probiotics balances these symptoms out. Studies in humans are already starting to show a similar correlation: groups given probiotics over a period of 30 days reported significantly less psychological stress than groups given placebos. Interestingly, people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome also showed dramatic improvement with probiotic treatment.
Because physical symptoms of these imbalances can often be detected before psychological symptoms, it’s important to know what to look out for. The common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome include: abdominal pain or cramping, gas or bloating, diarrhea or constipation, or mucus in the stool. If any of these experiences have persisted—or have appeared episodically—it would be important to follow up with your doctor. But what he or she may not prescribe you, along with whatever medical interventions may be necessary, is stress management.
Since we all know that a poor diet can increase GI inflammation and the presence of many of the symptoms of IBS, it’s a no-brainer that eating more healthily, and consistently so, can make a positive impact. But, that is a difficult thing to do in the face of stress. Emotional eating affects many people, as well as being “too busy” to include more healthful foods in one’s daily diet. But, failing to do so could be compounding the problem. Stress, fatigue, GI symptoms and poor dietary choices all tangle together to create a web of havoc on overall health.
The cycle needs interruption—why not start with reducing stress? Do what you can to reduce environmental stressors and spend the rest of your focus on changing your behaviors and self-talk. It’s incredible what an intentional attitude shift can do, as well as some thing as simple as changing up your bedtime routine or how much TV you watch vs. doing something productive, like reading, exercising or crocheting. Minor changes like these add up over time, just like switching out a serving of potato chips for crunchy baby carrots can be a great step in upgrading diet health. Start with one thing and work your way up—your gut is depending on you.
This post originally appeared on Care2.com.