Life as a student can be stressful. With exams, papers, and projects piling up, it can be hard not to feel overwhelmed at times. Although some stress is normal and even necessary for staying motivated throughout the term, prolonged or excessive stress can have negative effects on both your physical and mental well-being.
You may have tried everything to manage your stress levels while studying, from going on long walks, to finishing mindfulness colouring-in books. But did you know that stress can also be managed by looking after your gut?
Being stressed for long periods can negatively impact your normal digestive function; and it can also make pre-existing digestive issues worse, such as irritable bowel syndrome and stomach ulcers. But this works both ways – eating well can help you to feel more mentally well, too. If you’re a student, and you want to stay on top of stress while you study, read on for our tips and tricks for managing stress – starting with taking good care of your gut!
The gut-brain connection: why gut health matters
Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach before an exam, or felt less of an appetite when a whole lot of work is due at once? Have you ever noticed symptoms such as excessive bloating and reflux during a busy week at school or university? These feelings can all be traced back to the connection between the gut and the brain – a complex network of nerves, chemicals, and hormones called the gut-brain axis.
A whole range of emotions you might feel – from anxiety to sadness – can have physical manifestations in the gut. It’s no wonder, then, that when you’re overloaded with exams, assignments, and study – you might start to feel pretty off kilter.
Living inside your gut is a kind of ‘ecosystem’ called the gut microbiome – an array of living organisms that reside there naturally. The majority of these are bacteria, and a subset of these ‘good’ bacteria, or probiotics, help with digestion. A healthy gut microbiome is characterised by a diverse range of bacteria, which all help to break down food, produce vitamins, and protect against harmful pathogens.
When you’re feeling stressed, you might have a tendency to reach for certain comfort foods: chocolate, crisps, or ice cream, to name a few of the popular contenders. But choosing these foods more often may change the composition of your microbiome – as certain kinds of bacteria may thrive on these food sources, while others will dwindle in number. Although indulging in treats during exam season might not seem like a biggie – especially when all you can think about are your looming deadlines – making sure your body gets the right fuel during these stressful times can actually be a major factor in how you feel and how you perform.
If you don’t get enough good nutrition in your diet, dysbiosis can occur. In short, this is an imbalance in your gut microbiota. Dysbiosis is something you’ll want to avoid, not just in the exam season, but in general – as many studies link dysbiosis to chronic fatigue, acne, and allergies.
A diet that is high in fibre, fruits, and vegetables can help promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. And, as we know, a healthy gut tends to go hand in hand with mental well-being. So, instead of stocking up on energy drinks and sweet treats on your way to a study session, you may want to grab some muesli bars with whole grains, a leafy green salad, or a piece of fruit instead. Similarly, taking a probiotic supplement can help keep your microbiome balanced during times of stress (and the accompanying stress eating). If you’re feeling the negative effects of stress, try Zenflore® – a specially-formulated probiotic supplement which helps to support the body and mind during stressful periods, such as exam season. There are eight B vitamins in Zenflore, and each one contributes in some way to normal mental health and performance.
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Stress management: how to manage stress levels and support gut health
The relationship between stress and gut health is a circular one, so the more you do to manage both while you’re studying, the more healthy and successful your study experience is bound to be. Stress has been linked with gut dysbiosis, which has a number of negative health implications that could affect your academic performance in the long and short term. As well as maintaining a healthy diet that is rich in probiotics (foods full of ‘good’ bacteria) and prebiotics (foods that probiotics thrive on, such as Jerusalem artichokes) – you can also manage your stress and your gut health using several other methods. Here are just a few of them:
Long nights in the library and weeks of cramming might be a way to get by, but that lifestyle certainly isn’t stress-free, or more productive. One of the best ways to get on top of study-related stress is to manage your time effectively. Start by breaking down big projects into smaller chunks, and creating a study schedule to help you stay on track. If you’re prone to procrastination, scheduling like this can help you to take things one step at a time. You’ll feel a sense of achievement every time you complete one of these tasks, and they might not feel quite as daunting or stressful.
2.Take regular breaks
When a deadline is approaching, you might feel like the only way through is to stay glued to your chair until it’s done. But studying for long periods without breaks can be counterproductive. Not only is working without a break stressful, but breaks can actually help us to refresh, allowing us to retain the information we are studying better than if we’d worked straight through.
3.Practice self care
Self care means different things for different people. But ultimately, it’s about looking after yourself, and putting your needs (and wants) first. Self care may include things like getting a good sleep, taking time to make delicious and healthy meals for yourself, and going for a walk in a beautiful, natural place. Going to the gym, catching up with friends, or getting therapy are also forms of self care. Taking care of yourself is important if you want to prevent or manage stress, and it’s a lot of fun, too!
Another effective technique for managing stress is deep breathing. Taking deep breaths before an exam, or checking in with your breathing during a lengthy assignment can help to slow down your heart rate and promote relaxation. If you ever start feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to deal with the things that are stressing you out one at a time, and the best way to start is by calming your breathing.
5.Getting enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep is closely linked with stress – so much so that scientists have observed a sleep-stress cycle, where people who are stressed tend to sleep less, and this lack of sleep contributes to further stress. To avoid getting stuck in this loop, an all-nighter in the library might be better replaced with a full eight hours of sleep, and a fresh start on studying in the morning.
If you’re struggling to get to sleep, journaling about your day or writing down what’s causing you stress may help to clear your mind before bed. Exercising during the day, and avoiding caffeine, may also help to make you feel more tired at bedtime. Studies have also linked gut microbiome diversity with sleep quality. So, maintaining a balanced microbiome may also be a factor in getting a good night’s sleep.
For centuries, humans have been using a number of relaxation techniques to deal with stress and promote mental well-being. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices can all help to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve gut health.
Remember, managing stress and supporting your gut health is an ongoing journey. Incorporating these tips into your study routine can help you to feel better both physically and mentally, which puts you in a better position to get the grades you want.
Maintaining your gut health, in particular, is a perhaps lesser known – but very important – part of managing stress and improving overall well-being, especially for students. By supporting good bacteria in the gut through healthy eating, probiotic supplements, and stress management techniques, you can help manage stress levels, improve your mental well-being, and optimise your academic performance.
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