What is stress and what causes it?
You’d be hard pressed to meet someone who hasn’t experienced the effects of stress, especially over the last few years. Stress is a natural and normal physical and mental reaction to challenging or new situations and it happens to everyone. Under the right circumstances, stress can be a helpful response. Doing something for the first time, starting a new job, competing in a sport or preparing for an upcoming exam might be stressful but ultimately rewarding. In these instances, a stress response can enhance motivation and focus and help you work towards your goals. Stress becomes problematic when it lasts for a long time or if you feel unable to cope. When work deadlines pile up, your schedule gets too busy, there’s financial worries or relationship conflict. Being in a perpetual state of stress can start to feel normal for many of us. But when stress is ongoing, it can manifest as physical and mental symptoms. It might make you feel “on edge” and irritable, affect your sleep, change your appetite or cause headaches and muscle tension. It can leave you feeling drained and depleted or prone to illness. These are tell-tale signs that stress might be messing with your well-being and action should be taken.
What effect does stress have on our health and our bodies?
The body’s stress response, also called the “fight or flight” response, is an automatic physiological response to danger. When you experience a real threat, such as an oncoming car, or the body merely thinks that you are facing a threat, such as an impending public speaking event, the same stress response is triggered. It involves a complex interplay between the brain and nervous system and prompts the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This brings on a number of physiological changes designed to help the body “fight or flee”. Heart rate increases, breathing quickens, blood and oxygen is redirected to the muscles, brain and other vital organs, digestion slows down, muscles tense up and the immune system is down regulated.1 Once the stressful event passes, the parasympathetic nervous system dampens the stress response and calms the body down. The problem is many people are not able to put the brakes on stress. When stressors are always present and the stress response is constantly activated it can disrupt the body’s processes and contribute to health problems. This might look like headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension and pain, memory and concentration issues, digestive troubles or decreased immunity.
Can probiotics play a role in reducing the effects of stress?
The gut and brain closely interact and there is increasing evidence to suggest that the gut microbiome can have an impact on emotional and mental well-being. The probiotic strain lactobacillus plantarum 299v has been shown to alter the body’s stress response by reducing cortisol levels.2 Furthermore, probiotics have been shown to shield against the negative effects ongoing stress has on memory, focus and mental clarity.3 One of the effects of persistent stress and high cortisol is the depletion of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Gut microbes have the ability to produce and regulate these neurotransmitters, which can influence how we think and feel.4 Taking a high-quality, specialised probiotic backed by science may be one way to help reduce the effects of stress and support emotional well-being.
Self-care tips to alleviate stress
You might not be able to eliminate stress entirely, but you can take steps to minimise its impact on the body. Self-care is an important part of stress management and can help you feel better able to handle the stressors life throws your way.
- Try meditation to pause and rest the mind. Even a 5-minute guided meditation can make a difference.
- Practice box breathing as a powerful stress reliever. This involves inhaling for a count of 4, holding the breath in for a count of 4, exhaling for a count of 4 and holding the breath out for a count of 4.
- Incorporate regular exercise and movement into your day to release endorphins and help manage stress. This could be going for a run, a bike ride, doing a yoga class, a weights session, swimming or a quick walk around the block.
- Remember to laugh. Watch your favourite comedy, go to a comedy club or meet up with someone that makes you smile. Laughter can help to lighten the mental load, releases feel good chemicals and relaxes muscles.
- Declutter your environment. In Feng Shui, it is believed that a tidier space can make for a more relaxed mind.
- Take a social media break to support mental well-being.
- Reduce stimulants such as caffeine, which can excite the nervous system too much. Swap that extra coffee for green, peppermint or dandelion tea.
- Reach out for professional help if you’re going through a particularly hard situation or feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.
- Chu B et al 2021, Physiology, Stress Reaction. StatPearls Publishing, accessed 6 September 2022, < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/>
- Andersson H et al 2016, ‘Oral Administration of Lactobacillus plantarum 299v Reduces Cortisol Levels in Human Saliva during Examination Induced Stress: A Randomized, Double-Blind Controlled Trial.’ Int J Microbiol, vol 2, pp 1-7
- Papalini S et al 2019, ‘Stress matters: Randomized controlled trial on the effect of probiotics on neurocognition’, Neurobiology of stress, vol 10
- Strandwitz P 2018, ‘Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota’, Brain research, 1693, pp 128-133, doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2018.03.015