The holidays are stressful; this is not a newsflash. There is shopping to do, baking to be done, groceries to get, and all the social gatherings to attend. Tack all of that on to your regular busy life you’ve got a recipe for late nights, poor sleep, and a grab and go lunch of Christmas cookies and candy canes.
Despite all the exciting festivities, if you are someone that feels the effects of stress very acutely (i.e. anxiety, fatigue, changes in appetite/digestion, or cravings for sugar) you may find yourself entering this busy time of year with more trepidation than excitement.
Of course, external factors like hectic schedules and busy shopping malls play their role in why we feel so frazzled, but so too does the way we treat our body this time of year. Stress has an enormous impact on our gut, and conversely, our gut influences our stress response.
How Stress Impacts Us on a Physiological Level
Stress acts in our body on two levels: hormonal and immune.1
On the hormonal level, stress works on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis - three glands that amongst other things communicate with the rest of the body about how stressed we feel. When we feel stressed acutely, say if a bear were chasing you, these glands would send messages out (i.e. the hormone cortisol), telling your blood sugar to spike, your digestion to stop, and your heart rate to rise – all really valuable things when trying to escape a bear.
Likewise, our immune system also fires, sending out inflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers) putting our immune system on high alert – useful if the bear bites us, or tries to infect us with some unknown bear disease.
In the short term, you can see how these processes are helpful in keeping us safe, healthy, and alive. When stress becomes chronic, however, those signals stop being of value and begin to do us more harm than good. Chronic stress has been linked to chronic inflammation, which increases our risk of developing heart disease, depression, autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis.1
Gut flora and Immune System
What we now know though is that our gut flora has a direct hand in our immune response.
Our intestinal bacteria send signals to the cells of our body, which vary in nature based on who is sending them. For example, two species of our ‘bad’ bacteria, H. pylori and C. difficile, have been shown to cause the release of inflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers), stress hormones, and a systemic stress response.1
Our ‘good’ bacteria, however, have been shown to have the opposite effect, turning down our stress response and helping to keep the number of bad bacteria in check.1
Keeping your ‘bad’ bacteria low requires keeping the amount ‘good’ bacteria high, and creating a healthy environment for them to thrive. How do you do that? We’ve put together our four tips to help you keep your bacteria healthy during the holiday season.
4 Tips to Help You Take Care of Your Gut During the Holidays
1. Sneak in As Much Fiber as You Can
Fiber is to your bacteria, what milk and cookies are to Santa Claus: it is the fuel that they live off. Our bacteria go to work on the fiber in our diet, extracting energy from it and producing a group of molecules known as short-chain fatty acids which have been shown to improve our immune system, decrease inflammation, and keep the cells of our intestine happy.2
To get more fiber in your diet this holiday season, try starting your morning off with a seasonal smoothie, snack on whole grain crackers and hummus, and add veggies wherever possible (crudité platters can be just as exciting as cheese plates!).
2. Drink to Your Health
Taking a daily probiotic is a great way you can increase the numbers of ‘good’ bacteria in your digestive system. Bio-K+ probiotic drinks, for example, contain a combination of three unique probiotic strains. These strains have been proven to work synergistically together to keep ‘bad’ bacteria low, help ‘good’ bacteria grow, and promote gut integrity to support our immune system.
3. Limit Your Coffee
A little coffee is actually good for you: it increases wakefulness, makes you feel more alert, and has been shown to help promote biodiversity of our gut bacteria.3
The problem with coffee is when we drink too much of it, and thus, overconsume its active ingredient, caffeine, which impacts our major stress hormone, cortisol.
Chronically high cortisol levels have been shown to affect our good gut bacteria and increase gut permeability, allowing more toxins, undigested food, and ‘bad bacteria’ to enter our system.
Try to limit your coffee drinking to 1-2 cups in the morning when cortisol levels are naturally high (they start to fall in the afternoon). Be mindful of other sources of caffeine in your diet like soda, chocolate, and green or black tea. Working to bring your cortisol levels down into a natural rhythm will help you feel less frazzled, decrease inflammation, strengthen your immune system, and improve your digestion.4
4. Get Some Shut-Eye
Sleep helps reduce feelings of anxiety, keeps blood pressure healthy, improves our mood, and make us more resilient to stress.5 It also affects the state of our gut microbiome.
Research has looked at the link between our gut bacteria and sleep. Much like our gut-brain connection, this appears to be a two-way street; our gut bacteria can influence our ability to rest, while rest impacts the health of our gut bacteria.6 It seems melatonin, our ‘sleep hormone’, not only puts us to sleep but has also been shown to play a key role in maintaining our gut health.
To better cope with holiday stress you have to go beyond finding strategies to deal with ‘external’ causes of stress and go internal to support your body on a physical and physiological level.
If you have additional questions on how to keep your gut healthy during times of stress, let us know! Comment below, send us an email, join our community or get in touch on Facebook or Instagram. To stock up on Bio-K+ for the holiday season find a store near you.