Stress may harm gut health as much as junk food

GETTY Images Stress could be just as unhealthy as junk food

GETTY Images Stress could be just as unhealthy as junk food

Half of the male mice, and half of the female mice, were given a high-fat diet.

After 16 weeks, the entire group of mice was subjected to mild stress once or twice per day for a total of 18 days. Researchers noted that the gut microbiota - organisms that play a large role in digestive health - shifted in stressed female mice that weren't on the diet to appear as if they were.

Subsequently, the researchers examined microbial DNA found within fecal pellets from the mice, hoping to determine how different populations within the study reacted to their varying conditions.

"Stress can be harmful in a lot of ways, but this research is novel in that it ties stress to female-specific changes in the gut microbiota", said Laura Bridgewater, a Brigham Young University professor of microbiology and molecular biology and lead author of the study, in a statement.

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The full study was published last month in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

The male and female mice responded very differently to the experiment. They also measured mouse anxiety based on how much and where the mice traveled in an open field arena.

The high-fat male mice were also less active than females when stressed.

After analyzing the results, the researchers learned males on a high-fat diet exhibited more anxiety than females on the high-fat diet.

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However, among mice fed the standard chow diet, the researchers found that female mice displayed gut microbiota changes in response to stress that were similar to those seen in response to the high-fat diet. "This study suggests that a possible source of the gender discrepancy may be the different ways gut microbiota responds to stress in males versus females".

"In society, women tend to have higher rates of depression and anxiety, which are linked to stress", explains lead researcher Laura Bridgewater in a news release.

"We sometimes think of stress as a purely psychological phenomenon, but it causes distinct physical changes".

Brigham believes the mouse study has intriguing implications for human men and women.

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