"Good" Gut Bacteria Can Help Protect Caregivers from Impact of Stress

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I could hear the stress in my friend’s voice last month; in fact, I could even feel it in the text messages she sent me. She was trying to make decisions about a relative, who had been removed from a nursing home after multiple complaints. The relative refused to follow directions and resisted staff members’ efforts to get her to take her medications. Eventually, the relative was sent for a geriatric psychiatric evaluation, which determined she had dementia. Eventually, the relative was placed in a memory unit, which – at this point – seems to be a good fit.

    My friend’s situation reminded me of the month-long period when I had to deal with a similar scenario. Mom had come to live with me; at the time, I only thought she had mild cognitive impairment along with her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Unbeknown to me, she had developed Alzheimer’s and was showing great paranoia and uncharacteristic behaviors. That combined with her lung issues proved to be a toxic mix that quickly raised my stress level as I tried to get a handle on what was going on (while also starting a new job and taking graduate classes).

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    At the time, I hadn’t really thought about the whammy that my body was undergoing due to the stress. And I definitely hadn’t considered what the next two years of caregiving were going to mean for me, or what I needed to do to turn down the stress level. I’ve gotten better at handling the stress in the ensuing time, but realize that I still feel a certain level of angst as I’m now caring for my elderly father (who doesn’t have dementia).

    So I was especially interested in a 2013 story in More magazine that links the brain’s stress levels and bacteria in the gut. And one of the key takeaways is the need to maintain good levels of probiotics. These are live bacteria that help “good” bacteria that live in the intestinal tract to thrive, which aids the digestive process, supports the absorption of nutrients as well as reinforces immunity. Author Diane Lang points out that normally the “good” bacteria rule over the “bad bacteria” by producing substances that lower or kill the “bad” kind or by taking over the intestinal tract so that the “bad” bacteria can’t latch onto the large intestine.

    However, stress (like what we experiencing as caregivers) causes the body to produce hormones that mess with the digestive tract.  A 2013 study out of the University of Michigan Health System pointed out that stress alters the interactions between the brain and the intestinal tract. Part of that change includes increased intestinal inflammation that can result in diarrhea, severe or chronic stomach aches, and loss of appetite. That’s because stress suppresses critical intestinal components called inflammasomes that help maintain normal intestinal bacteria. Lange also noted in her article that changes in the type of bacteria in the gut can have an effect on the brain, causing chances in mood as well as a person’s emotional response to stress.

  • However, there may be a way to turn the “good” bacteria back on. The University of Michigan Health System researchers found that probiotics successfully reverse the effects of stress on the intestinal tract in animals. Therefore, I think it’s worth trying to consume probiotics in order to make this switch.

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    So where can you find them? The George Mateljan Foundation suggests that cultured dairy foods such as yogurt and kefir have probiotics can help reorient your digestive tract. However, the foundation suggests that you need to read the product labels so you select a high-quality product that includes active cultures. You also can find live bacterial cultures in sauerkraut, kimchee and miso. Another option is to eat foods with prebiotics, which contain nutrients that stimulate the good bacteria already located in the intestine.  Sources include soluble fiber (such as oatmeal), chicory, bananas, wheat, garlic, onions, flaxseed, artichokes, barley and legumes.

    All of this is just food for thought. But if you’re under stress – and honestly, want what caregiver isn’t – you’ll benefit by giving your “good” gut bacteria all of the ammunition to remain on top so you can remain healthy as you take care of the many decisions and tasks you’re facing in a stress-filled situation.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    George Mateljan Foundation. (ND). What are some of the best food sources for probiotics and prebiotics?

    Lange, D. (2013). A surprising way to beat stress.  More.

    ScienceDaily. (2013). Probiotics reduce stress-induced intestinal flare-ups, study finds.

Published On: February 17, 2014