Stressed? Your breath can signal it

Your breath can be analysed to measure your stress levels

Man breathing air

That experts recommend deep breathing as the first-line relief for combating stress is well known. But going by a new study, your breath could also reveal your stress levels.

A new pilot study published in IOP Publishing's Journal of Breath Research suggests that there are six markers in the breath that could be used to measure stress.

The researchers are hopeful that such findings would help us devise a quick, simple and non-invasive test for measuring stress; however, the study involved just 22 subjects and would need to be scaled-up to include more people, over a wider range of ages and in more "normal" settings, before any concrete conclusions can be made, they state.

Lead-author of the study, Professor Paul Thomas, said: "If we can measure stress objectively in a non-invasive way, then it may benefit patients and vulnerable people in long-term care who find it difficult to disclose stress responses to their carers, such as those suffering from Alzheimer's."

Researchers at Loughborough University and Imperial College London studied 22 young adults [10 male and 12 female] who each took part in two sessions: in the first, they were asked to sit comfortably and listen to non-stressful music; in the second, they were required to perform a common mental arithmetic test, specifically designed to induce stress.

Their breath was tested before and after each session, whilst heart-rates and blood pressures were recorded throughout. The breath samples were examined using a technique known as ‘gas chromatography-mass spectrometry’, and then statistically analysed and compared to a library of compounds.

"What is clear from this study is that we were not able to discount stress. It seems sensible and prudent to test this work with more people over a range of ages in more normal settings. We will need to think carefully about experimental design in order to explore this potential relationship further as there are ethical issues to consider when deliberately placing volunteers under stress. Any follow up study would need to be led by experts in stress," Professor Thomas said.

Breath profiling has gained increasing popularity as a diagnostic method for clinicians, and recently researchers have found biomarkers associated with tuberculosis, multiple cancers, pulmonary disease and asthma. It is still unclear how to best manage external factors, such as diet, environment and exercise, which can affect a person's breath sample.

"It is possible that stress markers in the breath could mask or confound other key compounds that are used to diagnose a certain disease or condition, so it is important that these are accounted for," said Professor Thomas.

The researchers assume that stressed people tend to breathe faster and have increased pulse rates and an elevated blood-pressure, which could change their breath profile. They emphasise, however, that it is too soon to postulate the biological origins and the roles of the compounds as part of a stress-sensitive response.

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