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Stressed During The Holidays? Fermented Milk May Help

12/29/2015 11:32 EST | Updated 12/29/2016 05:12 EST
YelenaYemchuk

It's the middle of the holiday season and despite the promises of comfort and joy many Canadians will be dealing with a plethora of less than cheery emotions. It's quite well known the two weeks at the end of December and beginning of January can take a toll on our psyches. Granted, most of us won't suffer from holiday-based ailments such as the "Merry Christmas Coronary" or the "Happy New Year Heart Attack," but symptoms of stress and depression may occur.

There are several reasons behind the holiday season's stressors, some of which are not due to our friends, co-workers and relatives. The lack of sun due to the winter season can lead to troubles. A sudden change in weight -- especially if it's up -- can lead to emotions of guilt. Then there is the issue of debt. Though the moments on the 25th may be bright the expectation of the bill come January can spoil any mood.

There are quite a few ways to help combat stress during the holidays. Many involve undertaking a variety of steps to stay calm. This can involve admission of stress, reaching out to trusted individuals for help, and keeping a positive attitude in the company of others. To combat the weight gain, adherence to healthy habits is recommended. Then there is the good old fashioned 'me time' where finding a few moments of solace can allow for retrospection and reset. While these are always considered to be the best steps, figuring out how to enact them during the hectic holiday season may not be easy.

There may be another route to help keep the stressors at bay. It doesn't involve very much effort; all one has to do is eat or drink fermented foods. Taking in those yogurts and kefirs may not entirely solve all stress-related problems, but research over the last two decades have revealed there's good reason to keep them in the fridge.

The first tests of fermented foods and stress came in 1998 when researchers attempted to deal with cellular stress using fermented milk products. The results revealed one of the components, lactic acid, appeared to help. A few years later, a similar effect was seen in rats although in this case, the fermented food was rice bran, not milk. In 2004 and 2005, it was time for human tests in which a fermented goat milk provided a similar anti-stress response.

Together, this information suggested the food wasn't responsible for the benefit. It was instead being caused by the microbes doing the fermentation. In almost all cases, the organisms were lactic acid bacteria, many of which today are better known as probiotics.

One of the most studied lactic acid bacteria happens to be known as Lactobacillus casei (named so because of the formation of lactic acid and its presence in cheese). Over the years, this species has been tested both alone and in combination with other bacteria in the hopes of proving once and for all, it is a natural stress-buster. In almost all cases, the bacterium and/or its fermented product showed benefit in those suffering from stress.

Now there may be yet another reason to add L. casei to your holiday diet: stress prevention. Last week, a Japanese group of researchers revealed milk fermented by this bacterium can also prevent the onset of stress. Based on their results, adhering to a daily intake a few weeks before a stressful event such as the holidays may help to keep the season emotionally bright instead of sullen.

The authors didn't focus on holiday celebrators for their tests. They decided to choose medical students, a group known for suffering under crippling stress. The experiments were rather simple. They asked some students to drink the fermented beverage while others drank a placebo. The study lasted for eight weeks during which time the subjects were monitored for psychological and biochemical changes. At the end of the eight week period, the students all participated in exams and then were tested two weeks after this point to see if any stress levels had changed without the intervention of the fermented drink.

When the results were tallied, there was a 30 per cent drop in psychological and physical symptoms in those who drank the fermented beverage. This meant fewer instances of pain, diarrhea, fever, headaches, and other secondary effects of stress. The anxiety levels during the eight weeks didn't differ between the two until right before the exam. Those who had the fermented drink were calmer.

For the authors, the results of the study suggested the fermented beverage offered both short and long term effects. Over the eight week period, the drink helped to reduce the frequency of secondary effects of stress. But the real benefit seemed to come in the few days right before the exams when anxiety levels were expected to peak. With the help of the beverage, that peak didn't come.

Admittedly, it's too late to prevent the stress of the holidays now that we're well within them. However, thanks to that short-term benefit on anxiety, there may be reason to seek out a fermented drink made from L. casei. The compilation of studies from past and present suggest it may help to keep you calm when everything else seems to be going out of control.

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