Rest • 31 Aug 2020

Gut Health During Times of Stress

By uci_admin

Gut Health During Times of Stress

By Marvin Singh, MD – Director of Integrative Gastroenterology

Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute

UCI Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences

Let’s be honest, it’s a stressful time to be a human on planet Earth these days. You can’t deny it. We would never have thought that we would be living in pandemic at the end of 2019 but we are. Like with other chronic diseases, Covid-19 seems to be of particular concern in those with chronic inflammation. This is where gut health comes in, as 70-80% of our immune system is located in the digestive tract [1]. We are referring to the home of the gut microbiome, a vast ecosystem of trillions of microorganisms that live together to help our body accomplish its myriad tasks. What is troubling is that during this time we are seeing certain health behaviors get worse, not better, and this could not only potentially alter the strength of our immune system but also influence our risks for other chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and fatty liver.

The human body is so complex but at the same time quite simple. The various elements work together like a fine orchestra. And what is even more fascinating is that some very simple things can influence the activity of the gut microbiome and even genetic expression.

If you are running a business, managing your household, teaching your kids school from home, just trying to stay afloat, or all of the above, it is important not to forget some of the principal aspects of health and wellness[2].

  • Diet choices are of utmost importance. By feeding our gut microbes a diverse diet with plentiful vegetables and fruits, we are giving our bodies the opportunity to produce good levels of butyrate, an anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acid.
  • Avoiding toxins. It may be tempting to have a few extra drinks these days but we should remember that alcohol is a toxin to the gut and in excess it can drive inflammation and imbalance. Also, make sure you get outside, breath some fresh air, and be around nature (social distancing of course!). Being cooped up in your house all day doesn’t help your exposure to environmental toxins. The solution to pollution is dilution; so open your doors, buy a few house plants, and feel the breeze hit your face every day!
  • Exercise is super important. Not only does exercise help us cultivate a more diverse gut microbiome, it helps bolster our immune system and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which can help with our mood and how we feel and think.
  • Practicing stress reducing techniques are also very important. There is no better time than now to do this. Start with something simple like the 4-7-8 breath and just grow and learn from there. Meditation has positive effects on GI motility, microbiome composition, and your telomeres!
  • Sleep well. It might be tempting to stay up watching your favorite shows and movies all night. But try not to do this. Alterations in circadian rhythms have been associated with imbalances in the gut microbiome. We need around 7 hours of sleep on average. In fact, sleep disruption is a risk factor for Covid-19 infection. So, make sure you get some rest!
  • Social interconnectedness is also important not to forget about. It’s so easy to isolate yourself from everyone when you are in quarantine and social distancing. It’s especially hard if you run a business and are used to being around people all the time. But, this is a time to learn and innovate. We have so many great technologies at our disposal these days that there are tons of things we can do remotely. Many of things actually increase the convenience factor and reduce overhead, so don’t be afraid to find creative solutions and make sure you “see” your friends, family, and colleagues regularly.

There are a certain percentage of people who have digestive symptoms as a result of Covid-19. Viral RNA has been identified in stool specimens and we know that the viral receptor, ACE2, is highly expressed in the small and large bowel. The gut is certainly a source where active infection and replication can occur [3].

So, it is easy to see how important gut health is, not only for your whole health and immune system, but during these pandemic times. By managing our lifestyle behaviors and optimizing gut health, we are able to reduce our internal inflammation and optimize our personal parameters. It is still paramount to follow all of the recommendations issued by the CDC and FDA and your local authorities, but let’s not forget the simple things we can also do to improve our health as well!


[1] Singh, M. Lifestyle Medicine. In: Mullin G, Singh M, Parian A, editors. Integrative Gastroenterology 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. October 2019

[2] Maizes, V. et al. Integrative considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Explore. 2020 March 26.

[3] Sung, JJ. et al. Covid-19 and the digestive system. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2020 March 25.

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