Our bodies are the most amazing machines and when functioning optimally or in, what’s known as homeostasis, then everything is as it should be and in balance. Our bodies are constantly trying to reach this state of balance but we are continually making that a challenge with our busy lives, our chaotic environments and our dietary choices; essentially pushing the boundaries from health states to states of dis-ease. One of the biggest contributors to this imbalance is stress. Selye used the term “stress” to represent the effects of anything that seriously threatens homeostasis and observed that severe, prolonged periods of stress might lead to tissue damage and disease. (Schneiderman et al, 2016) So below let’s talk about the effects of stress in more detail and just what impact it has on our health and wellbeing.
We’ve all experienced stress at some point or other in our lives but for some this is a constant, daily battle. But how does it affect our health? Dr. Sapolski states that in the short term, stress hormones are “brilliantly adapted” to help you survive an unexpected threat. “You mobilize energy in your thigh muscles, you increase your blood pressure and you turn off everything that’s not essential to surviving, such as digestion, growth and reproduction. All of that is spectacularly adapted if you’re dealing with an acute physical stressor—a real one” like a sabre-toothed tiger.
However, non-life-threatening stressors, such as constantly worrying about money, a global pandemic or pleasing your boss, also trigger the same stress response, which over time, can have devastating consequences to your health: So, “If you turn on the stress response constantly for purely psychological reasons, as opposed to a physical stressor, you increase your risk of things like adult onset diabetes, high blood pressure, reduced immune function, reduced reproductive health, among others. In this stressed state, you’re also continually shutting down the digestive system, putting yourself at greater risk for a whole bunch of gastrointestinal disorders as well.
So knowing that worrying about our health, money, relationships etc. turns on exactly the same physical responses as trying to run from a tiger… what can we do to minimise the effects of this response on our system?
Below I have outlined some dietary interventions and lifestyle strategies that will give you some insights into how to support our bodies through stressful situations.
Diet is key to overall health and wellbeing but more specifically, the right nutrients are paramount in helping our bodies cope with stress and improve wellbeing. There are several but my top 5 nutrients for stress support are;
- B-Vitamins – Found in wholegrains, meat, eggs and legumes have been shown to result in greater improvements in perceived stress and psychiatric symptoms, according to Long SJ, Benton 2013.
- Magnesium – Found abundantly in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, vegetables and legumes and daily supplementation with 248mg of elemental magnesium for 6-weeks led to a significant decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms, with clinical improvement seen within 2 weeks (PLoS One 2017)
- Vitamin C – found in broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, peppers, squashes and citrus fruits among others, helps ensure sufficient levels for protection against oxidative stress in critical brain regions as well as maintain normal neurotransmitter (chemical messengers) activity. Also, supplementation with Vitamin C has been shown to reduce cortisol reactivity to acute physiological stress and lower basal cortisol levels within 2 weeks. (IHCAN Magazine, February 2018)
- Omega 3’s – In terms of where to get these, I always think of the mnemonic S.M.A.S.H which stands for salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring. There are also plant sources like chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, algae etc. According to Diabetes Metab. 2003, “after 3 weeks of a diet supplemented with n-3 fatty acids (1.1g EPA, 0.7g DHA), the stimulation by mental stress of plasma epinephrine, cortisol and energy expenditure were all significantly blunted.”
- Ashwaganda – which is classified as an ‘adaptogen’, a unique class of healing plants that help the body to adapt, adjust and re-calibrate itself depending on our emotional and physical surroundings. A clinical study in overweight people with high levels of stress found that Ashwaganda root extract (300mg/twice daily) for 8-weeks reduced feelings of stress, stress-related eating, levels of cortisol and body weight. (J Evid Based Comp Altern Med. 2017)
Now that we know what foods and nutrients to include more of when trying to combat stress, let’s take a look at some lifestyle interventions we can employ to help ‘in the moment’ or when stress takes hold in our day.
- Diaphragmatic breathing – which is just a fancy term for breathing from the diaphragm instead of shallow breathing from the chest.
- So, place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage (this will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breath) Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible. Continue this slow breathing until you feel more relaxed.
- Practise the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness activity
- Acknowledge FIVE things you can see around you. It could be a pen, your desk, anything in your surroundings
- Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you.
- Acknowledge THREE things you can hear
- Acknowledge TWO things you can smell and
- Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste
- Commit to making changes to your lifestyle to minimise the causes/triggers of your stress
- Are you taking on too much in your day? Can you say ‘no’? Can you delegate some tasks?
- Can you prioritise tasks in terms of importance/urgency so that you’re not trying to do everything at once?
- Can you look at your diet? Your sugar/alcohol/caffeine intake or your smoking habits?
- Can you improve your sleep hygiene?
- Can you increase your exercise?
- Can you make time in your day for things that bring you joy?
As with everything in life, there is no magic bullet/pill unfortunately, but if you commit to some small dietary changes or even just practising some breathing or mindfulness techniques on a regular basis, you’ll find you’re in a calmer state and better prepared for what’s coming.
Get in touch if you’re struggling with stress or anxiety and need support with your diet.