As the football European Championship rolls onto the knockout stage, nerves could soon start to be shredded for some players as penalty shoot outs come into play. From Stuart Pearce’s 1900, Southgate in 96 and England awful showing against Portugal in 2004 - England are certainly a country that seem to suffer more than most with the anxiety of a penalty shoot out. New data published this year actually showed what might be going on in the brains footballers that miss penalties (1). What the study showed is that players typically miss because they become overly anxious and irrelevant parts of their brain became activated to a greater degree than those that score, while the task-relevant areas were less activated. While most of us may never experience an International penalty, we all face challenges and tasks where we may show the same anxious behaviours. Or our anxiety can lead to us overthinking tasks that are usually autonomous - we start to use the wrong parts of our brain. There are many, many factors that contribute to our mental well being and anxiety. One that is being learnt about more and more, is our digestive tract.
Football, Anxiety And Performance Pressure
Euro 2020 penalty shoot out? Could this supplement help settle those nerves and help a country bring it home?
FOOTBALLERS THAT MISS PENALTIES TEND TO BE MORE ANXIOUS. IRRELEVANT REGIONS OF THE BRAIN BECOME ACTIVATED WHILE TASK-RELEVANT AREAS WERE LESS ACTIVATED
The human gut is colonized by more than 100 trillion microbiotas, and these bacteria can provide benefits to the individuals. We have written many times about the positive effects of probiotic supplements, but a new study (2) has looked to see the effects of a daily probiotic supplementation on cognitive measures in competitive footballers. The researchers took measures of cognitive function, and brain wave activities at the beginning (before supplementing), and then after 4 and 8 weeks. One group supplemented with Lactobacillus Casei Shirota strain (LcS) and the other supplemented with a placebo.
After 4 weeks, the footballers that had been supplementing with the probiotics had significantly increased theta and delta power from brain wave activities measures. Theta oscillation is one of the slowest brain waves where the frequency was around 4–8 Hz that could detect when an individual felt more relaxed, in a sleeping state or while meditating. This indicated that the football players in the probiotic group were more relaxed with low stress and anxiety.
On the flip side, high delta responses are often associated with cognitive process such as attention, problem solving, perception, and signal tracking. What was even more interesting was that those players with anxiety and depression tended to show slower reaction times in the function tests due to the dysfunction of the process to communicate accurate information accompanied by anxiety and depression.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
We know more and more about the gut and the bacteria that reside there, and then all of the different roles they might play. Gut microbiota are functionally diverse and play a role in many basic metabolisms including carbohydrate metabolism, immune system activities, and fibre degradation. But we know are beginning to understand the bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut.
This means that changes in the microbial environment can affect behaviour, and behavioural changes can affect the gut bacteria (2). Gut bacteria and probiotics can directly interact with our nervous system, they can secrete hormones that can be transferred to the brain, and they can reduce systemic inflammation.
It isn't only about your gut. Top nutrients for mental health:
- Omega 3 fish oil has been well-studied for their effects on anxiety and depression
- A 2021 study has shown that vitamin D levels negatively correlate with feelings of depression (4)
- Diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in fast food takeaways have been linked to better moods and lower stress levels (5)
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF US?
The probiotic and football study concluded that, "Stress, anxiety, and depression are often associated with competitions, and regulating these psychophysiological components can be the solution to improve performance via food-based nutritional supplements. ...with supplementation of Lactobacillus Casei Shirota strain, the delta and theta brain waves were higher in the probiotic group after four weeks that provide evidence for relaxation and attention components in the probiotic group." This information isn’t just relevant for footballers. Many of us could benefit from help regulating our stress and anxiety. And there are studies showing the benefits in non-athletes. LAB4 probiotics have been for their effects on general feelings of anxiety, mood and cognitive function in healthy individuals (4). Lab4 probiotics significantly decreased ‘trait’ anxiety levels compared to the placebo group, where the ‘trait’ anxiety levels increased over the course of the 6 weeks supplementation. So, when times get tough, looking after our gut health should be a staple in our daily routine.
1 - Slutter, M. W., Thammasan, N., & Poel, M. (2021). Exploring the Brain Activity Related to Missing Penalty Kicks: An fNIRS Study. Frontiers in Computer Science, 3, 32.
2 - Adikari, A. M. G. C. P., Mahenderan Appukutty, and Garry Kuan. "Effects of Daily Probiotics Supplementation on Anxiety Induced Physiological Parameters among Competitive Football Players." Nutrients 12, no. 7 (2020): 1920.
3 - Liu, Bangshan, Yunan He, Mi Wang, Jin Liu, Yumeng Ju, Yan Zhang, Tiebang Liu, Lingjiang Li, and Qi Li. "Efficacy of probiotics on anxiety—A meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials." Depression and anxiety 35, no. 10 (2018): 935-945.
4 - Dogan-Sander, E., Mergl, R., Willenberg, A., Baber, R., Wirkner, K., Riedel-Heller, S. G., ... & Sander, C. (2021). Inflammation and the Association of Vitamin D and Depressive Symptomatology. Nutrients, 13(6), 1972.
5 - Firth, J., Gangwisch, J. E., Borisini, A., Wootton, R. E., & Mayer, E. A. (2020). Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?. bmj, 369.
Dr. Jamie Pugh (PhD) is a post-doctoral researcher at Liverpool John Moores University where he studies the effect exercise can have on the gastrointestinal system and the effects probiotic supplementation can have on endurance athletes. He has also worked as a consultant nutritionist and physiologist for a number of professional teams, marathon runners, and extreme endurance athletes.