April is Stress Awareness Month in the United Kingdom and the United States. Really, our awareness of stress is never ending. I thought this would be a good time to revisit this blog post about how your diet can impact your stress!
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”.
Stress is a part of our lives, whether we like it or not. The truth is not all stress is bad. For example, when we exercise, we stress our bodies to get stronger and perform better. Stress can push us forward, but we are not meant to experience chronic, constant stress. Our ancestors dealt with life one stress at a time, not on a continual basis. Today, however, this is just not the case. We are bombarded by ever increasing and constant stressful situations, from work, taking care of family, money issues, world events and so on.
When you start looking at ways to reduce your chronic stress levels, you probably focus on how much you work, your daily responsibilities, and whether you practice good self-care. These are all very important, but don’t forget about a simple choice you make every day that could be impacting your stress … your diet.
The truth is, sometimes, we make unhealthy nutrition choices in an attempt to deal with stress.
Some foods can exacerbate your stress, while others can help to reduce it. In fact, your diet has a much larger impact on your stress levels than you might expect. Conversely, a stressful situation can determine what food choices you make in order to deal with said stress. This becomes a cycle of high stress levels and poor nutritional choices. The solution begins with focusing on proper nutrition to sustain and fuel your body throughout the day.
But first, how does stress do it?
Your adrenal glands are small golf-ball sized structures located on top of your kidneys in the lower back. Adrenal glands secrete the stress hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol. When the body senses a stressful trigger, the adrenal glands first produce adrenaline, the short-lived “fight or flight” hormone. It prepares the body for the perceived “imminent danger”. Once adrenaline is used up, the hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol helps you to “conquer, rather than succumb to ongoing adversity” (The Mood Cure, Julia Ross, M.A.).
Problems arise when the body experiences chronic stress on an ongoing basis. The adrenals can only take so much and eventually the production of stress coping hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, etc.) is impaired, which leads to adrenal burnout.
When your adrenals are burned out, your ability to cope with stressful situations is affected and even the smallest things become a big deal. As such, you may attempt to deal with stress by consuming high fat, high sugar foods for comfort, drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, among other things.
A note about Cortisol
There’s a lot of negativity about cortisol out there. The truth is cortisol is not your enemy. Cortisol helps with blood sugar regulation, regulates metabolism, and reduces inflammation. However, too much cortisol can lead to weight gain, hormone disruption, an increase in blood sugar levels, muscle weakness and more. It’s a double-edged sword really … too much cortisol isn’t good for you, but so is not enough. Cortisol helps you deal with stress and helps with other processes in your body!
Whether you are experiencing stress or not, a poor diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies. These deficiencies can affect not just your physical health, but your emotional health as well.
Constant, chronic stress promotes increased cellular activity which leads to increased nutrient usage. In other words, a stressed body burns through protein, carbohydrates and EFA’s (essential fatty acids) as well as Vitamins A, C and E, the important B Vitamins and others. You might think, well that’s good, right? The stress is using up all of the food I’ve been eating! Well … if these and other nutrients are not consistently provided to your body … meaning you are not getting enough or any of the critical nutrients needed to support your body during stressful times, your body will be left tired, drained, and susceptible to disease depression, anxiety, adrenal burnout and more.
FYI … Aging also has an affect on how well we absorb nutrients from foods, which is another reason to ensure you manage stress levels and eat healthily.
What can I do?
Below, I’ve set out what foods to avoid, what to eat and what supplements to focus on to help your body better deal with stressful situations.
What to avoid
Did you know that excess, refined sugar depletes the body of nutrients?
So … chronic stress affects the body’s absorption of nutrients and sugar depletes the body of nutrients. It stands to reason that limiting excess, refined sugar in your diet, especially when times are stressful is a good place to begin!
Not only is caffeine a stimulant, but it is also an irritant to the digestive system. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning (before anything else) sets in motion an affect on blood glucose levels and can lead to stomach upset since nothing else is in the system. This puts additional stress on the body.
Alcohol is a stimulant and a depressant and the feel-good effects are short-lived. Alcohol, among other things, “affects our ability to covert and use essential fatty acids” (Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, Patrick Holford). If, as noted above, a stressed body burns through EFA’s, adding alcohol only compounds the matter.
Fast foods, deep fried foods, processed/packaged foods
These foods are high in fat, sugar, calories, and preservatives. Consuming them only leads to cravings for more of such foods, blood sugar imbalances and weight gain, which increases the stress placed on an already stressed body.
What foods can help
A diet rich in nutrients and whole foods can help the body better deal with stressful situations. Remember, stress affects the absorption of vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat. Your eating plan should include things such as, fruits, vegetables, high quality lean protein, complex carbohydrates (slow digesting), good quality fats such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
What supplements can help
B-Vitamins – B-vitamins are critical for managing stress. B-vitamin deficiency ranges from fatigue and confusion to anemia. Folic acid (B9) is necessary for the adrenal glands to function properly.
Vitamin C – Vitamin C provides antioxidant and cellular protection. Vitamin C also supports adrenal function. Remember, if your adrenal glands are at the point of burnout, the production of adrenaline and cortisol is impaired, which your body needs to combat stress.
Vitamin D – Do you know why you feel more energized and happier during sunny days? It’s the vitamin D from the sun’s UV rays. If you live somewhere that is cloudy and rainy a lot, or it is the winter where there isn’t much sun, you may need to supplement vitamin D which can be found in fatty fish, eggs, dairy, fortified cereal or a high-quality supplement. I talk more about Vitamin D in this post.
Calcium – While many people get their calcium from dairy and yogurt, you might be someone who isn’t able to tolerate dairy or someone who chooses not to eat dairy. In this case, you can get calcium from foods such almonds, sesame seeds, tofu, tempeh and kale. Yes kale! Kale is a power-house green that won’t inhibit your body’s absorption of calcium the way spinach does.
Note: Don’t avoid spinach! Definitely mix things up!
Omega 3 fatty acids – Healthy fats are important! As noted above, stress and sugar burn through nutrients such as EFA’s and as such, the body doesn’t absorb them as readily.
Glutamine – Glutamine is an amino acid that can help with excessive sweet and starch cravings. This can be helpful for you when the adrenals are depleted, and blood sugar levels are falling and the overwhelming desire to reach for something sweet or starchy happens.
I’ll say it again … chronic stress affects the body’s absorption of much needed nutrients at a time when the body is in desperate need of those nutrients to combat stress. Conversely, poor nutritional choices can exacerbate the negative effects of stress on your body!
A sound and healthy nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle plan can help the body better handle stressful situations when the occur.
Your body and mind will thank you.
A great way to help with your stress levels is to limit or eliminate the excess refined sugar in your diet! My 7 Day Sugar Cleanse and Masterclass is just the ticket for you!
The 7 Day Sugar Cleanse includes whole food recipes high in nutrients that are mentioned in this blog post which will help you with your cravings for high-fat, processed foods that are loaded with sugar!
Click here for more information!
Until next time!
Yours in health and wellness,
Francine Alleyne (RHNP™)
Holistic Nutritionist, Registered Holistic Nutrition Practitioner™
USANA Health Sciences Wellness Ambassador
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DISCLAIMER: Please consult your healthcare practitioner if you are experiencing any symptoms. This post and anything else you find on my website is intended for informational, educational and self-empowerment purposes ONLY and is not intended to treat or diagnose any condition or disease.