Most of us experience stress on a regular basis, whether at work or in our personal lives. Increasing demands on our time leave us feeling rushed, worried and exhausted. Nearly one in four Canadians over 15 years old reported that most days were 'quite a bit' or 'extremely stressful.'

Stress can take its toll on your heart, blood pressure and mental wellness. It can also contribute to behaviours such as smoking, excessive drinking and less-healthy eating habits. Recent studies have also found stress affects the body in much the same way as a steady diet of junk food, making our body respond as if we’d been eating a high fat diet.

Here’s how it works
Ongoing stress can upset the balance of the healthy bacteria in your gut, which can have a negative impact on your entire system. Gut bacteria are responsible for a healthy immune system, efficient digestion, mental clarity, balanced hormones and more. Over time, stress can change the overall balance of your gut bacteria, leading to health issues like headaches, muscle pain, digestive problems, sleep disturbances and even depression.

High levels of stress can also cause our bodies to release more cortisol, the hormone that triggers our bodies to store fat and crave calories. Stress also prompts excess insulin production, which could eventually lead to insulin resistance, the primary underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease, including weight gain.

Here are 5 things you can do right away to reduce stress:

Stay active
Even 30 minutes of fast walking a day can make a difference in your overall health, including better balance in your gut bacteria. Regular exercise also helps you burn off excess energy, manage anxiety and sleep better.

Improve your nutrition
There’s no better way to improve your digestive health than by focusing on eating a variety of vegetables, lean proteins and fibre-rich foods. It’s also a good idea to keep caffeine and sugar to a minimum and try eating smaller meals throughout the day to improve digestion.

Get enough sleep
For most adults, it’s best to try to get between 7 to 9 hours a night of good quality sleep. A good night’s sleep gives your body time to recover and rebuild, leaving you more alert, energetic and able to handle the pressures of daily life.

Take time to unwind
Whether it’s going out with friends, playing a game with family members, doing yoga or just watching a movie, make sure you find time for stress-free pursuits that will take your mind off things for a while. More balance will help you maintain perspective and better manage the mental and physical effects of stress.

Write it down and prioritize
Most of us try to do too much. Take stock of all the actions on your list, then look at your priorities and timelines to see what’s really possible. Just writing down your ‘to do’ list can make it more manageable. Look for chances to delegate and share the load with family members or work colleagues.

Just like cutting out junk food, there are things we can do to cut back on stress. Take time to identify what makes you anxious and look for better balance. It can make a huge difference in both mental and physical health.