We all experience periods of stress. And if you’re like most of us, the events of the past, well, 2020, have likely kicked it into overdrive. When this happens, the typical reaction is to look to measures like breath work, meditation, yoga, and other self-care to tamp down our anxiety. But there’s a preventive therapy you may not have considered—connecting with the deep dark recesses of your digestive tract. A growing body of research links the quality of your gut microbiome (the bacteria that reside in your esophagus, stomach, and intestines) with your emotional health. And science tells us that nurturing these bacteria can help you manage stress.

Here’s how it works: When the bacteria in your gut digest the food you consume, they produce substances that support your well‑being. Some, called neurotransmitters, help to regulate mood. A pathway in your body known as “the gut-brain axis,” facilitates communication between these bacteria and your brain—and vice versa. When your microbial ecosystem is working well, these signals help to keep you on an even keel. And when it isn’t, a condition known as dysbiosis may make you more vulnerable to emotional stress.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is one of these chemical messengers. Most antidepressant drugs work their magic by targeting serotonin, which is known as “the happy hormone.” Your gut bacteria produce about 90 percent of your body’s supply of this mood-elevating substance.