Is Childhood Trauma to Blame for Your Gut Health Issues?
Ok, so we all have had tons of trauma in our lives. From falling down as we are learning to walk, to being yelled at, to dealing with uncomfortable situations at school or home, to an accident playing a sport....and the list could go on. No one comes out of life without trauma.
But the trauma I want to highlight in this post is in regards to childhood - abuse, neglect - whether it be emotional, verbal, physical, spiritual or sexual, excessive amounts of any one of these or combination thereof, leads to some hefty health issues.
A new study out of UCLA (along with others) indicates that the composition of your gut microbiome can be indefinitely impacted by intense, traumatic experiences due to the innate wiring between the gut and the brain. Now, we have known that the gut can impact the brain, now we’re learning more about how the brain can potentially interact with the gut microbiome based on severe stress (aka trauma, CPTSD).
To find out more about how trauma impacts microbes, researchers studied those with abdominal discomfort and digestive issues, both WITH and without a history of childhood trauma.
When they looked closer, scientists found that those who had a history of trauma in their early lives had distinctly different gut microbiomes from both those who had the same digestive issues but no early life trauma, as well as people with neither digestive issues nor trauma. Yeah, not good!
If you have a delicate, squeamish, unpredictable or impulsive gut, you’re not alone. Many Americans have bowel issues of some sort. While they may not enjoy talking about it, they have them. What’s most fascinating about GI issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is how LITTLE researchers understand about their origins. But a recent study shines some new light on the gut / IBS puzzle:
traumas over one’s lifetime may play a big role in who develop serious gut issues.
Whether you’ve lived through a trauma in childhood or adulthood, when your brain reacts, there’s a good chance your gut will, too (The Body Keeps Score is a great book to read!)
Severe stress (such as childhood trauma) negatively affects the microbiome, and leads to people experiencing longer, more significant issues with their digestion than people who have the same underlying digestive problems, but no trauma.
What’s more, individuals who’ve endured trauma in their early lives tend to have a weakened immune system due to the effects of ongoing stress. While the body is pretty darn good at dealing with isolated incidences of stress, long-term stress is a different story.
Ongoing stress (like CPTSD from an unstable home environment) creates conditions in the gut that lower microbial diversity and encourage the growth of inhospitable bacteria. If left unchecked, your gut bacteria can become very unbalanced, leading to issues throughout the body, and in the immune system in particular, as 80% of it is located in the gut.
So, How Can You Support Your Gut Microbiome If You’ve Dealt With Trauma?
Trauma is an incredibly personal experience, and recovery is going to look slightly different for each person. But there are a few things that we know are beneficial to nearly everyone, regardless of the type or degree of trauma involved. First, safety. You need to make sure you are in a safe environment. If you feel like you are always walking on eggshells, that’s not safe. Your nervous system will be on overdrive.
But some of it is more common sense: having someone to talk to, keeping on top of at least basic self care, and incorporating somatic movement into your days is almost always helpful. Similarly, supporting your gut can be one of the most effective ways to support your disposition and overall feelings of health and joy.
- 1. Set an intention of self-care
Healing is a process and can sometimes take (many) years. As you’re moving through each day, know that your gut microbial balance struggles when you're actively carrying stress. Do what you can to incorporate intentional stress reduction into your self-care routine––it’s good for your brain and also the trillions of bacteria who support you each day.
Try going for a walk outside—it's a good way to diversify your gut microbiome, plus it's been shown to improve your mood and support healthy stress levels. Another idea is to implement a new gratitude practice: research indicates that people who keep track of the things they're grateful for not only feel better, they may even live longer! You may even want to try incorporating a meditation practice into your day - something I do with all of my clients. It's not only good for your mental health, it has a number of positive effects on your immune system, the quality of your sleep, and even your gut health.
If nothing else, try reducing your screen time. Spending a lot of time on your devices not only affects your stress levels, it also has an impact on other things that can leave you feeling less than your best, including the quality of your sleep and how well you're able to concentrate.
- 2. Stay connected
This is easier said….but isolation is incredibly harmful to both your mental and physical health, so make sure that you're staying connected. Unfortunately, given our modern Western lifestyle, it's becoming easier and easier to become isolated without even realizing it. So if you've been waiting to return that text, try out that local farmer's market, or join that class at the gym.
And I get it, it may be scary trying something new, so consider this your official invitation: your gut and your future will thank you for it.
- 3. Get your probiotics and prebiotics.
I’m big on “TEST, DON’T GUESS”, but there isn’t too much harm in bringing some good guys into your gut, while dealing with your trauma healing. Good beneficial bacteria, aka probiotics, are great for supporting the aspects of health commonly affected by trauma, including your mood, energy levels, and immunity.
While you're at it, consider including more prebiotic foods and a prebiotic powder supplement in your diet. With so many bacteria living within your gut, you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed in order to stay healthy. Prebiotic fibers act like a fertilizer for the good bacteria, breaking down into the nutrients that they need to thrive as you begin to care for the bacterial balance in your gut.
The more we learn about the gut, the more it becomes clear that having a healthy balance of bacteria is the keystone for all kinds of health. Whether you have a history of trauma or experience stress-related digestive issues, supporting this incredibly important ecosystem is one of the BEST things you can do for your health and well-being.