As we tread lightly through a new reality of measured social distancing, infection prevention, and economic uncertainty, stress has risen to the forefront of many people’s lives. This month’s theme is immuno-resilience. In this third blog post in the series, we dive into how stress can directly affect the functioning of the immune system through the interface you all know I love to talk about — the gut.
If you are like most people, you are experiencing an amplified amount of stress these days, or you’re living with someone who feels amped up by the circumstances, which adds to your stress. Whether you turn on the news or read the latest headlines, you can quickly feel the effects of stress and how they impact our bodies and minds, including the functioning of the immune system.
A Gallup poll found that 55 percent of Americans often feel stressed out. Researchers noted that for so many of us, stress, worry, and anger have become intensified. 1 That poll was from 2018. With the Covid-19 pandemic unfolding, I can assure you that number is most likely higher.
You cannot control what happens outside of you or what happens to you, but you can certainly control your internal state of mind. Ultimately, how you respond to stressful situations is really the only thing that you have control over. It’s as simple as that, but not so simple to implement.
Stress Impacts the Gut and Immune System
Worrying, getting angry, and arguing with others does not change the external events that have transpired. In fact, they damage you by promoting the release of stress hormones and putting you into that fight-or-flight response that sets your entire body — including the immune system and the gut — on high alert.
Stress is a huge factor for how your gut behaves or misbehaves. If you’re constantly feeling stressed out, your gut is also unhappy. I often say that…
Stress is like an attack on your gut!
And what impacts the gut — more specifically, t he quality and diversity of the bacteria within the gut — can also impact the immune system. 2
A little bit of stress is normal and even healthy. But that stress response, when it stays in overdrive long after it no longer serves you, can exacerbate symptoms throughout the body, including increasing autoimmune symptoms and susceptibility to infections.
Even before this pandemic began, for years I have seen how stress plays out in various gut-related problems among my patients. I think of stress as the unmentioned proverbial elephant in the corner of the room — it is omnipresent, but often ignored. And we cannot ignore it any longer, because…
Stress sends ripple effects throughout the body.
Chronic stress can lead to digestive enzyme deficiencies . Stress is a common cause of low stomach acid, which can lead to multitude of issues, including SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), an increased risk of bacterial infections, and an inability to efficiently break down protein. As a result, some patients also struggle with depression because of a deficiency of the amino acids ( from inadequate protein breakdown) that are needed to create neurotransmitters for healthy brain function, happiness, and satisfaction. 3
Over time, these gut imbalances can contribute to problems including leaky gut syndrome. Studies show that chronic stress can increase permeability of the gut lining. 4 Over time, that condition — more commonly called “leaky gut” — can lead to obesity and increase your risk of infections. 5 6
The take-home message here is that there is a clear and strong connection between stress, your gut health, and your immuno-resilience .
If you want a strong immune system, you need to work on lowering your stress levels…
which very likely will involve increasing your mental resilience to what life throws your way.
Stress, Gut Health, and Mood Disorders
The inflammation that stress can create can actually change the levels of neurotransmitters and increase the secretion of stress hormones. Many of these neurotransmitters are made in the gut.
Consider serotonin, one of the molecules of emotion and the signal for a “happy mood” in the brain. More serotonin receptors are found in the gut than in the brain. In fact,
95 percent of serotonin found in the body is produced by the gut’s nervous system. 7
Being in charge of producing so much of this “happy chemical,” along with 40 other neurotransmitters, it’s no wonder the gut is central to feeling happy and feeling balanced . 8 I’ve talked elsewhere about how yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can help you balance the parasympathetic (“relaxing” arm) and sympathetic (“fight-or-flight” arm) of the autonomic nervous system. You can learn more breathing exercises here .
When you find yourself getting wound up because of stress, you can easily access the parasympathetic nervous system through breathing and meditation to return your body to a natural state of balance. Through yoga with coordinated breath and movement, you can change your internal focus towards health, connection and calm within minutes .
What Impacts the Gut Also Impacts the Immune System
About 70 percent of the immune system exists in the gut as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT . 9 When production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters becomes imbalanced, the immune system also suffers. 10
Gut health can impact the immune system in so many ways. Studies show that various stressors such as maternal separation can alter the composition of the gut flora, contributing to dysbiosis or an imbalance between good and bad gut bugs. The ways that you manage stress can influence both the diversity and complexity of that gut flora , which when negatively affected can subsequently weaken the immune system. 11
The overall consensus is that when you learn to manage stress, the gut improves . When the gut lining is strengthened, the immune system becomes stronger. I for one know this, because
“I suffered from a weakened gut and weak immune system throughout my teenage years, and as result dedicated my life to figuring out how to improve my gut health and fortify my immunity to build immuno-resilience.”
Learning to manage how I reacted to stress was a key part of this journey.
What ultimately matters with managing stress is to find tactics that work for you . With the recent increase in stress levels, some of my (virtual) patients are asking me about additional ways they can lower stress levels without resorting to pharmaceutical drugs and other invasive measures. There’s not one right way to do so for everyone, but there are scientifically proven avenues to dropping your stress-o-meter .
That’s why I wanted to provide these Four Anti-Stress Strategie s . Along with eating a Happy Gut ® -friendly diet and maintaining healthy lifestyle factors to nourish the gut-brain connection , these are additional and sometimes overlooked ways to help manage stress levels.
Anti-Stress Strategy #1: EAT FERMENTED FOODS
One of the most powerful, effective ways to lower stress levels and boost immunity is with foods . I’m talking about things like leafy and cruciferous vegetables as well as berries and low-sugar fruits, of course, but also fermented and cultured foods , which can support the growth and proliferation of your “good” bacteria .
Probiotics including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can help the brain better manage mood disorders including stress . 12 These probiotics are found in:
ANTI-STRESS FERMENTED FOODS
 Cultured foods , such as yogurts or kefir
 Fermented foods , such as fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, and kimchi
 Cultured beverages containing favorable live bacteria, such as kombucha or Coconut Water Kefir
Among their many benefits, probiotics or healthy gut flora can help improve mood disorders . In animal studies, the probiotics in these foods can lower anxiety levels. 13 Another review that looked at a wide range of probiotic strains concluded that overall, they had a positive effect on depressive symptoms. 14
Probiotic foods also support the production of g amma-aminobutyric acid or GABA , the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter.
GABA can help you relax, reduce stress, feel more calm, maintain a balanced mood, reduce pain, and improve sleep levels.
Some foods that contain GABA include teas (green, black, and oolong teas) and fermented foods such as kefir. 15
A century ago, researchers found how kefir can impact mental wellbeing . George Porter Phillips observed how patients in a London hospital with depression struggled with severe constipation, which showed up in their appearance. Whereas others believed depression was the cause of these problems, Philips had another suspicion: THE GUT .
Phillips gave these 18 patients kefir, which contains lactobacillus bacteria. His experiment was among the first proof that…
To improve well-being, you need to start with the gut.
Of those 18 patients, 11 were completely cured and two more showed significant improvement. Even 100 years ago, we knew about the healing powers of this fermented drink. 16 17
Maintaining healthy levels of GABA can help you better manage stress levels .
In one study, mice were divided into two groups. Some got probiotics; others received broth. They then measured GABA levels. Overall, the mice that received probiotics had a lower stress response. Interestingly, the mice that had their vagus nerves severed didn’t get those benefits from the probiotic. This highlights how the probiotic can communicate from the gut to the brain . When the vagus nerve becomes impaired, as often happens under stressful situations, that communication can’t happen.
Anti-Stress Strategy #2: DRINK HERBAL TEAS
If you’re familiar with essential oils, you know the calming benefits they can provide. Lavender, for instance, has a long history of benefiting conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. 18
This flowering herb is grown for its essential oil, which can be applied topically. Lavender tea also supports a variety of issues , including:
- Digestive issues such as vomiting, nausea, intestinal gas, upset stomach, and abdominal swelling
- Pain from headaches, sprains, toothaches, and sores
- Prevent hair loss 19
A variety of herbal teas can help manage stress levels . Some of my favorites include  passionflower,  chamomile, and  kava. I encourage people to experiment with their own herbal teas to discover their unique stress-relieving properties.
- Contains Apigenin (antioxidant) that binds to specific receptors in the brain to promote calmness 20
- Helps Soothe an upset stomach, and makes a great post-dinner digestive
- Supports Intermittent Fasting to get you through those late night hours (topic for another future post)
Gut-Soothing Calming Tea
 Purchase dried chamomile flower pods at a health-food store
 Bring to a boil in a pot
 Simmer for 10 – 15 minutes.
 Drink it warm or make a refreshing iced chamomile tea with a sprig of fresh mint leaf.
Some teas might combine calming herbs for a synergistic effect. To make a stronger, more medicinal tea, simply steep the tea bag for up to ten minutes.
While it’s not an herbal tea, green tea provides its own unique stress-managing benefits . It contains a calming amino acid called L-theanine . One study found that students who drank green tea had a lower stress response than those who didn’t. Caffeine could inhibit that calming benefit, so opt for a decaffeinated green tea. 21 Or go for my favorite combination of green tea, lemon verbena, spearmint and lemon grass in Tazo ® Zen ™ Green Tea .
Anti-Stress Strategy #3: TRY CBD OIL
A newer but very powerful supplement to manage stress, support the immune system , and so much more is CBD oil.
This oil is derived from cannabidiol (CBD) , a cannabinoid found in cannabis plants. CBD oil often comes from hemp flowers , which are rich in CBD but low in the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that gives cannabis its psychedelic, mind-altering qualities. As a supplement, CBD is attached to a carrier oil so the body better absorbs this chemical compound.
CBD interacts with specific receptors in the nervous system. It can impact levels of serotonin , your “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, anxiety, and increased stress levels .
Studies show that…
CBD oil can help reduce anxiety and stress-related conditions.
In fact, CBD can help address generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder . 22
CBD OIL GUT HEALTH BENEFITS
 Lowers Inflammation
 Supports Digestive Concerns , including stomach swelling and bloating
 Helps Gut Mobility , the stretching and contractions of the muscles within the gut 23
Research has shown that CBD oil may help with irritable bowel syndrome or IBS , which stress and anxiety can worsen, by lowering inflammation, improving gut motility, and lowering the frequency and intensity of spasms in the gut to help better manage discomfort. 24
CBD oil is also ideal for immune system support . It binds to the CB2 receptors in the brain, spleen, and leukocytes, helping to lower inflammation and support the immune system. 25 CBD oil also increases the body’s white blood cell count to better handle infections. 26 27
We are still learning about the effects of CBD oil on the immune system . Some research shows that CBD is immune-suppressive: It can promote apoptosis or cellular death, for instance, eliminating harmful cells. CBD oil can also suppress or enhance cytokines, suggesting that it serves a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation. Other research shows that CBD oil is immune-enhancing, perhaps due to its stress-reducing effects. Because of its anti-inflammatory benefits, CBD oil also shows great promise for autoimmune diseases . 28
CBD oil shows a lot of promise for many other conditions, including:
- Brain Health
- Heart Health
- and even for some Cancers .
Research for CBD oil is still in its infancy, but what we’ve learned so far shows great promise to help people manage these conditions better. 29
Anti-Stress Strategy #4: TAKE DIGESTIVE ENZYMES (to increase protein intake)
One of the best things you can eat to manage stress levels is protein . The amino acids in protein help form the building blocks for neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. As I’ve said before, balanced levels of serotonin 30 and other neurotransmitters will help you better manage stress levels.
Getting sufficient protein can help stabilize the body’s blood sugar levels, eliminating the spikes and crashes that can make you moody, irritable, and stressed out.
Without a sufficient amount of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach to break down that protein, however, the gut wouldn’t be able to absorb those critical amino acids that play important roles to support the immune system , repair and build tissue, and provide the building blocks for all the enzymes that power your cells. A plant-based digestive enzyme can provide that support to help break down protein and other nutrients the body needs to thrive .
I wasn’t happy with the digestive enzymes on the market, so I created my own with HAPPY GUT ® ACTIVATE . This full-spectrum digestive enzyme includes everything the gut needs to break down food and properly absorb nutrient s;
- Carbohydrate-digesting Enzymes : amylase, glucoamylase, cellulase, hemicellulase, diastase, beta-glucanase, and invertase
- Protein-digesting Enzymes : protease, acid protease, alpha-galactosidase, protease SP
- Fat-digesting Enzyme : lipase
This digestive enzyme is also helpful for the improved digestion of plant foods like grains and beans, as well as dairy products, which commonly induce digestive upset.
That’s why I include HAPPY GUT ® ACTIVATE in my 28-day GUT C.A.R.E.™ Program that I outlined in Happy Gut ® . To ensure that you are getting sufficient protein, the program also includes 2 canisters of HAPPY GUT ® CLEANSE SHAKE . This gut-healing, fructose-free, hypoallergenic, vegan protein powder supports gut health, supports the immune system , and balances blood sugar so you no longer struggle with hunger and cravings.
Starting your day with a protein-rich meal provides the support your body needs to thrive throughout the day . Many patients have told me they don’t have time or the appetite for breakfast. A protein smoothie makes the ideal solution . In fact, research shows people who eat protein at breakfast tend to feel less hungry throughout the day and consume less calories, not only helping to keep your mood happy but also your waistline trim .
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, immune health support has become a very hot topic. What some experts overlook, unfortunately, is the gut-immune connection.
When the gut is healthy, the immune system has a strong defense system…
against the viruses and other pathogens the body is exposed to. A strong gut forms a barrier against these invaders. It can break down and absorb nutrients to provide what the immune system requires to work well. A healthy, happy gut manufactures the right neurotransmitters to better manage stress levels .
The 28-day GUT C.A.R.E.™ Program provides all the foundational tools the gut needs to heal and stay strong. This is the same protocol that I’ve used with thousands of patients to heal gut problems and support their immuno-resilience .
You want to do everything possible to keep a peak-performance immune system. That starts with the gut, by providing the nutrients it demands… So that you can thrive and build immuno-resilience during this pandemic and beyond.
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