Dr. Helen

Is Stress as Bad for Your Body as Junk Food?

One new study shows this to be the case, at least in mice:

PROVO, Utah — Stress may contribute to poor health just as much as a poor diet, a new study finds.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China conducted an experiment with a substantial number of eight-week-old mice, half of which were put on a high-fat diet.

Sixteen weeks after the start of their diet regimen, all of the mice that were part of the study were exposed to conditions that brought about mild stress.

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.

Interestingly, the excrement of male mice subjected to a high-fat diet showed that these rodents exhibited greater levels of anxiety, along with decreased activity due to stress. More surprisingly, female mice that were only put under stressful conditions exhibited a shift in the composition of their gut microbiota comparable to that of mice on a high-fat diet.

This finding, in particular, could hint at a serious health issue for many distressed women.

“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. “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.”

Indeed, studies have shown that twice as many women experience depression as men, which could further compound an already existing gap in mental health.

“We sometimes think of stress as a purely psychological phenomenon, but it causes distinct physical changes,” adds Bridgewater.

Women may tend to internalize stress more and hence, they may have more physical symptoms from stress or feel stress more deeply. But they have more places to turn than men. And I don’t think that it is true that women have higher rates of depression. Many men respond to stress by killing themselves, isn’t this worse than simply having a gut reaction? Men often keep their feelings to themselves or commit suicide.

Studies like this are not helpful to men if they result in women getting help for mental health issues while men’s needs are ignored. That said, when I see psychologists who care more about their politics than their patients, I can see why men want to avoid them.