Stress might be just as unhealthy for women as junk food, BYU study says

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PROVO — If you’re stressing about eating healthy, don’t.

While eating nutritious food is important, a new Brigham Young University study says that stress may be just as unhealthy for women as junk food.

When female mice are exposed to stress, their gut microbiota — microorganisms vital to digestive and metabolic health — change to look like those of mice that have been eating a high-fat diet, according to BYU biology professor Laura Bridgewater, who co-authored a paper on her findings.

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

Bridgewater and her collaborators at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China took a large group of eight-week-old mice and fed half the males and half the females a high-fat diet. After 16 weeks, all the mice were exposed to mild stress for 18 days. The researchers then extracted microbial DNA from the mice feces to see how the gut microbiota reacted.

Male mice on the high-fat diet exhibited more anxiety and less activity than high-fat females, but stress caused the microbiota of the female mice to change as if they were on a high-fat diet.

“We sometimes think of stress as a purely psychological phenomenon, but it causes distinct physical changes.” - Laura Bridgewater, BYU biology professor

While the experiment has not been replicated on humans, Bridgewater believes there could be significant implications for women.

“In society, women tend to have higher rates of depression and anxiety, which are linked to stress,” said 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 vs. females.”

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