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By Dr John Douillard

Which is harder on the human body? Junk food or stress and anxiety? Researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study to compare these two health hazards. The study was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

While the study was performed on mice, the researchers believe that the impact from stress and junk food are comparable to what happens in humans.

The researchers evaluated a large group of eight-week-old mice over a period of 16 weeks. During the 16 weeks, half of the male mice and half of the female mice were fed a high-fat diet. This high-fat diet was designed to mimic a “junk food diet.” After those 16 weeks, all of the mice were exposed to mild stress over the course of 18 days.

Before and after the study, DNA from the microbes in the foecal matter of the mice was extracted and examined. This allowed the researchers to see the impact on the microbiota of the mice. They were able to determine the level of anxiety experienced by the mice by measuring how willing they were to move into an open field area.

The Results

The differences between the male and female mice after stress were quite staggering.

The male mice that were given the high-fat diet experienced significantly more anxiety and less activity in response to stress compared to the female mice that were given a high-fat diet.

The female mice that were given a normal diet saw a dramatic shift in their gut microbes in response to the stress. Post-stress, the gut microbes in the female mice changed to different types of microbes, as if they were eating a high-fat, junk food diet.

The gut microbes in the male mice that were exposed to stress only did not change.

The Conclusion

The researchers concluded that the results of this study may explain the gender discrepancy in which higher rates of anxiety and depression are found in women compared to men. Stress seems to alter the gut microbiota in a negative way—more in women than in men.

For women, this study emphasises the importance of stress mitigation. For men, it suggests the importance of having a healthy, organic, whole-food diet more seriously.

Dr. John’s Take

The negative impact of stress on the digestive system has been described for thousands of years. In fact, the “seat of the nervous system” was understood to be in the large intestine.

Now, we have overwhelming evidence suggesting that stress can indeed alter the gut microbiology—and, in turn, have a negative impact on mood.

Eating organic, whole, non-processed, seasonal foods is a mainstay in Ayurvedic medicine, as are stress-reduction techniques like yoga, breathing, and meditation. But, more precisely, Ayurveda has always placed great significance on how we eat. Intentionally slowing down, relaxing, and enjoying our meals could not be more strongly underscored by the old Vedic saying, “If you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder.”

Three Tips to Avoid Digestive Stress

In the study described above, junk food was found to be worse for men than women—but this by no means gives women permission to eat junk food (except for those well-deserved cheat days of course!).

The study does, however, show us how stress adversely affects our digestion and mood. Here are my top three tips to avoid digestive stress:

1. Make your meals count

Visualise and plan your meals, so that you know where you will be stopping, relaxing, dining, and enjoying each of your three daily meals.

2. Make your lunch bigger or have dinner as early as possible

Studies suggest that eating earlier in the day, rather than later, supports healthy weight loss and optimal digestion.

3. Don’t snack

Snacking throughout the day turns the digestive system on and off all day long. This forces the body to burn the snacks, rather than fat, for energy.

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