Do you remember the last time you lay awake in the bed bombarded with worries about money, work, the economy, family responsibilities or personal health issues? Considering the amount of stress most of us are dealing with today, it may have been just last night (or almost every night).
Sleep isn’t the only thing you lose when dealing with substantial stress. It can also very likely affect your health, causing hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, heart issues and even vulnerability to addictions (and not just food addiction). Indeed, stress affects your body, mood and behaviour.
Common symptoms reported include:
BODY: headache, sleep problems, muscle tension, fatigue, stomach upset, change in sex drive, brain fog, chest pain and high blood pressure.
MOOD: anxiety, depression and sadness, restlessness, irritability or anger, lack of motivation or focus, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
BEHAVIOR: overeating or undereating, less exercise, angry outbursts, social withdrawal, drug or alcohol abuse, and smoking.
While there are countless recommendations how to manage physical or mental pressure, such as regular activity, a sense of humour, relaxation techniques, socializing and hobbies, today I would like to focus on one particular issue, and that is my believe that a main strategy in stress management revolves around diet.
How stress effects diet
I think we’ve all been there. You’re stressed out, you check out the content of the fridge or you stop at the fast food restaurant, and you start eating … and eating … and suddenly you realize you need to stop! Stress eating is a common impulse, and it often involves rubbish food. (STRESSED is DESSERTS spelled backwards after all!)
Cortisol, the hormone released with stress, increases appetite and the motivation to eat. And, if the stress doesn’t go away, cortisol may stay elevated. This is obviously not a right way to live your life.
You may have noticed that being anxious almost always influences your food choices — usually for the worse. When stressed, we tend to gravitate toward high-sugar and high-fat (hyperpalatable) items. There’s plenty of research that indicates that it may have something to do with the combination of high cortisol levels and high insulin levels, the hunger hormone ghrelin, or the fact that these foods may inhibit brain activity that produces and processes stress. So, living in such a state, over time, puts you in a cycle of continuous cravings.
Of course, since high-sugar, high-fat foods like potato crisps are convenient and easy to grab along the way, that makes it extra difficult to resist them. So just insuring that you always have readily available, nutritious foods available to snack on likes nuts or fruit can go a long way toward improving your food options when you’re overcome with pressures and don’t have the time to make the right nutritional decisions.
Stress also has a big impact on digestion. Because of the way we are “wired,” our bodies experience difficulty managing stress and digesting food at the same time. Our stress response causes all of our energy to be directed at attacking the stress trigger, not giving a thought or leaving sufficient energy to digesting food.
Depending on your constitution, this can either leave unmetabolised food in the gut, which can lead to constipation, digestive detox issues, bloating, pain, gas and weight gain, or cause food to pass so quickly that there isn’t time for nutrient absorption, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, the physiologic stress response can cause the sphincter between the oesophagus and the stomach to spasm, so stomach acid makes its way into the oesophagus and burns the lining. This is best known as heartburn. It may also produce a chemical reaction that wipes out the majority of your good gut bacteria, as well as cause our metabolism to slow down.
How Diet Can Help Manage Stress
A healthy balanced diet goes a long way in naturally managing daily physical or mental pressures. Some foods provide comfort, lower stress hormone levels and increase “feel good factor” hormones like serotonin. It’s not always the nutrients, but sometimes the effect that helps matters. Here’s some suggestions:
Foods for stress management
Leafy Green Foods like spinach, collard greens and kale deliver magnesium, which plays a role in cortisol level regulation, and stress-reducing B vitamins.
Complex Carbohydrates - Since carbs can encourage serotonin — a neurotransmitter in the brain that boosts mood and lowers stress, they are a good option. Carbs also have the comfort factor. However, it is important to choose complex carbs, because they take longer to digest and can help stabilise blood sugar levels.
Naturally Fatty Fish - Fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, halibut and herring contain omega-3 fatty acids, which tend to stop stress hormone surges. Fish oil can reduce the sense of mental pressure and support cardiovascular health.
Nuts & Seeds - Healthy portions of almonds, pistachios, macadamia and walnuts are another good source of healthy fats, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, soothe inflammation in the arteries, and protect from the effects of stress. Their B vitamins can help reduce this sense of pressure. Be careful to watch your portions though as they are quite hefty in calories.
Milk- The relaxing effect of warm milk tends to ease anxiety and promote relaxation. The calcium helps with stress reduction, and vitamin D supports muscle relaxation and healthy mood. Milk also contains antioxidants, two B vitamins and a protein called casein (in its reduced form lactium) that has a calming effect.
Dark Chocolate - Eating limited amounts of dark chocolate can lower stress with both a chemical and emotional impact. Its antioxidants may help reduce stress hormone levels, while savouring this rich indulgence can be comforting.
Oranges - Oranges and grapefruit contain high levels of vitamin C, which is good for the immune system and may lower stress hormone levels like that of cortisol.
Avocados - Avocados are packed with potassium, which may help to reduce high blood pressure, and omega-3s, which can reduce stress and improve mood and concentration. They also contain stress-relieving B vitamins. This is a great option for a snack when you’re craving fat. Again, watch portion size.
Adaptogens for Stress Management
If you do not consume enough stress-busting foods in your diet, you may benefit from supplements known as adaptogens. These herbal formulas were originally used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, when they were referred to as balancing tonics. Herbalists recognized that plants had the ability to “adapt” to harsh growing conditions and weather conditions as a survival instinct. The thought was that if plants can withstand stress, their DNA may work to make us more resilient and adaptable.
As always, please share with anyone who might benefit from this blog and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.