11/14/2016 12:01 EST | Updated 11/14/2016 12:17 EST

Psychobiotics Could One Day Relieve Your Stress

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Young businesswoman suffering from headache at desk in office

The holiday season is coming and soon we will all be submerged in the usual rush leading up to those two weeks at the end of December. As the calamity continues, we are sure to experience a spike in stress levels. Regardless of the cause, the symptoms will be troublesome at best and for many Canadians, unbearable.

Psychological stress is a condition unlike any other in the human body. It's an instinctual reaction to changes either inside the body or from the environment. These in turn lead the brain to change its function and possibly, alter normal behaviour.

Figuring out how to control psychological stress has been a never-ending goal for health and wellness. We often have heard of meditation and positive psychology, both of which have some benefit. We also are familiar with pharmacological routes in order to dampen the chemical effects of stress on the brain. These options may be readily available but may require both time and the acceptance of potential side effects in the case of drug prescriptions.

Among the people aiming to find harmony in the brain, there are those who are looking in a rather odd place: the gut. These researchers believe the gut is the second brain and can influence our mental health. Officially known as the gut-brain axis, this physiological link has been known for decades yet until recently, has never made it into the forefront of research. The reason for this shift in focus isn't due to the human cells in the gut, however. It's because of the microbial ones.

Of the tens of trillions of bacteria living in our gut, several species have the ability to influence a variety of biological functions such as immunity, metabolism, and neurological signalling. These three systems are known to be involved in the development of stress suggesting a possible association. Over the last few years, the microbial connection has been established and viewed as a possible route for prevention against and treatment for mental health conditions.

Defining a role for microbes in stress has represented a major shift in the concept of dealing with this intrinsic part of daily life. Instead of trying to alter the functions of the body and brain directly to calm our nerves, some researchers have suggested microbes may be able to accomplish this task more efficiently. By using probiotics with mental health benefit -- also known as psychobiotics -- people may be able to alter their stress levels by ingesting a probiotic formula.

However, getting to that threshold has been difficult at best. Reviews have been conducted and the conclusions have all been the same. While psychobiotics may be a good idea, there has not been enough evidence in humans to support recommending them.

Today, there is even more support for these microbial mind helpers thanks to an Irish group of researchers; some of whom coined the term. They have revealed the benefits of a bacterial species on stress and brain function in a human trial. The results suggest the future for psychobiotics is bright and may one day lead to a new, natural option for those Holiday blues.

The team asked 22 people ranging from different walks of life -- from doctors to artists -- to participate in the study. The people were divided into two groups. One received a placebo while the other was given a probiotic bacterium, officially called Bifidobacterium longum 1714. The supplementation lasted four weeks over which a variety of tests were performed to determine effects of stress and also learning.

As the team expected, the individuals who received the bacteria were less likely to suffer from stress. They also appeared to have a better learning capacity. Best of all, the benefit of the psychobiotic intervention was consistent among the various individuals.

While the results were encouraging, there were a few catches. First, the effect was not immediate. The best results were seen after four weeks of intervention. The benefits were also not long-lasting as the individuals returned to normal stress and learning levels within two weeks of stopping the bacterial supplementation. This wasn't entirely bad as it showed the process of calming was natural as well as dependent on consistent presence of the bacteria.

Even though this study is small and not officially considered a clinical trial, the information reveals some very important perspectives on the use of psychobiotics in the future. They most likely won't be a cure or treatment. People won't be able to simply "pop a pill" and expect immediate benefits. Instead, individuals would need to take them regularly to maintain mental balance. While this may not fit a pharmaceutical mentality, the potential for overall benefit with a low risk for side effects may give them the advantage down the road.

In the meantime, as the holiday season approaches, the best route to keeping calm during the stressful periods may be to maintain a proper diet and include probiotics and/or fermented foods. While there may be no direct effect on the brain, the influence of a happy gut on mental health may be enough to hold you over until the rush is finally over.

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