BYU research shows stress just as harmful as unhealthy diet

BYU professor Laura Bridgewater, third from left, discusses research with her lab students. Bridgewater led a study that proved stress is just as harmful to the body as eating an unhealthy diet. (University Communications)

Stress may be just as harmful to a person’s health as an unhealthy diet, according to research by BYU professor Laura Bridgewater. Stress even has the potential to make permanent changes to the body’s ecosystem if not handled properly.  

The study examined different groups of male and female mice on a “normal chow” diet and a high-fat diet. The mice were exposed to several stressors in their environment over two and a half weeks. They were then further tested for potential effects of stress in the gut microbiota, or the microbes that reside in the gut.  

The researchers examined the gut microbiota and noticed a significant change in the groups of mice after adding stressful elements to their environment.

“We don’t take (stress) seriously as a health threat,” Bridgewater said. “We think of it as a temporary mental condition. But in fact, it’s causing physical changes. If it’s changing our gut microbiota, those could be lasting changes.”

Male mice on the high-fat diet demonstrated signs of anxiety and decreased activity in response to stress. In contrast, the gut microbiota of the female mice on the normal diet shifted to match that of the females on the high-fat diet after the stressful period.

The reasoning behind the gender differences within the results was not addressed in this particular study, but may be in the future, according to Bridgewater.   

Bridgewater worked with collaborators at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China to make the study a reality. She met her colleague, Liping Zhao, several years ago when he gave a seminar on molecular biology at BYU. Drawn to Zhao’s work, Bridgewater established a relationship with him and later took a sabbatical to China, where the collaborative research process on this study began.

BYU food science major Michelle Conover was not surprised by the outcome of the study. Her personal experience with anxiety lines up with Bridgewater’s results.

“To me, it makes sense that stress does have physical factors,” Conover said. “When I’m really anxious, (I get) a pit in my stomach or I start shaking. There are things that happen. It’s not just in your head, even though it is chemicals in your head.”

Barbara Morrell, a BYU psychologist and director of the Stress Management and Biofeedback lab, said stress has proven to be a major contributor to modern diseases and health issues. Morrell considers the most powerful antidote to stress to be slowed breathing, which can be learned with minimal training.

“Learning to manage stress is not difficult,” Morrell said. “It takes simple skills that are fairly easy to learn and recognizing that we’re not at the mercy of our stress response. We can learn to down-regulate our stress through simple practices and awareness.”

Managing stress levels is a beneficial method for avoiding serious health issues because the mind is complexly connected to all of the body’s systems. Prolonged stress can intensify pre-existing health problems and create new ones, as well.

Bridgewater is continuing to work with Zhao and her other collaborators in furthering the research. Their next goal is to find a way to target harmful bacteria in the gut and keep it from making permanent health changes.

“If we could find a way to clear some space by killing some of the harmful bacteria, then it could give beneficial bacteria a chance to thrive and try to restructure the gut microbiota in a healthful way,” Bridgewater said.  

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