Stress comes and goes – it’s a normal part of life. It’s common to feel stressed every so often, but living in a chronic state of stress can cause significant harm to health and wellbeing over time.
Why Do We Get Stressed?
When in a stressful situation the body’s nervous system and adrenal glands send a signal to the rest of the body to prepare for a physical response. This response is a survival mechanism to get out of danger. It was necessary hundreds of years ago to help us run from predators that posed a life or death threat. It is called “fight or flight response.” The body’s physical response is to increase heart rate and respiratory rate. At times of perceived danger, physiological changes trigger hormones to increase heart rate and blood pressure to ultimately deliver more oxygen and glucose to the muscles and peripherals, preparing the body to RUN.
Vital physical functions are prioritised over less urgent bodily functions (digestion and reproduction) to give the body the chance to flee! In turn, the immune system is activated, breathing is accelerated and the heart moves into overdrive to support the body.
These days, we don’t have the same life or death stressors however, the physiological response is still the same. Money issues, niggling children, constant text message alerts, phone calls, running late to work, relationship issues all can elicit this same fight and flight response. The brain cannot distinguish between “threat to life and work drama” instead, it just recognises THREAT! The more constant and frequent the exposure is to these stressors, the more intense and frequent the body’s physiological response becomes. An individual might find that they are constantly on edge, unable to switch off or sleep. Typically, in this stage, many feel as though they are “wired but tired.” For those who do not adapt their lifestyles to cope, and 'burn off' the effects of their triggered response system, stress can build up and become a health problem.
Effects of Stress
On the Body:
increased heart rate
insomnia/ disturbed sleep
poor digestion (bloating, diarrhoea, constipation)
increased blood pressure
hormonal changes (menstrual irregularities, acne, weight gain)
On the Mind:
anxious or racing thoughts
feeling low and in a rut
Now, these are the initial “warning” signs that stress is a problem. If the stress is left unmanaged and untreated it will become a chronic issue and cause serious harm to the body. Seek help from a professional to prevent your chances of ending up with chronic disease caused by stress such as digestive disorders, mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease.
Stress and Digestion
The relationship between stress, digestion and eating habits is profound. Stress can cause appetite fluctuations and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome. This is due to the activation of the fight and flight response. When this response is triggered, the central nervous system (CNS) shuts down digestive processes and restricts blood flow to the stomach, slows peristalsis and decreases secretions crucial for digestion.
Following a stressful period, the body goes into a 'recovery or conservation mode.’ During this time, appetite is increased, and food cravings are rife. While food cravings are increased the metabolism slows to conserve energy and store fat (particularly centrally). An increase in the stress hormone cortisol will also contribute to weight gain.
In other individuals, chronic stress may manifest by suppressing appetite leading to rapid weight loss. Nutrient deficiencies are commonly seen at this point as the body chews through vital nutrients.
Importance of Diet for Stress
When the body is nourished and chemically and hormonally balanced it is far more likely that an individual will not experience stress the same as an individual who is eating a nutrient-poor diet. Below is an overview of foods which better and hinder the stress response. Making positive dietary changes is the first step to relieving symptoms and getting health back on track.
Foods to Help Combat Stress:
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables will ensure that the body is receiving an adequate supply of essential vitamins and minerals. Stress accelerates the rate at which the body, particularly the adrenal glands are using these nutrients and as such, it is crucial that they are replenished. The adrenal glands are particularly reliant on magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C for optimum function.
B vitamins - Found in bananas, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, meat, fish and dairy products, these are essential for mitochondrial function (energy production).
Vitamin C - The largest store of vitamin C lies in the adrenal glands. Keep these healthy by eating plenty of vitamin C rich foods such as kiwi fruit, tomatoes, capsicum, citrus fruit, leafy greens and broccoli.
Magnesium - A portion of magnesium can come from fruits and vegetables (leafy greens, avocado, banana) however, it is also found in other food groups such as nuts and seeds, legumes and wholegrains. Magnesium is needed for almost every body system to function. It’s a natural anti-anxiolytic and can help reduce muscular cramps, tension as well as modulate hormone and energy production.
Carbohydrates are thought to increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect. Eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates is critical for blood sugar regulation and hormonal function. Blood sugar dysregulation caused by eating highly refined carbohydrates and simple sugars can lead to inflammation in the body and throw out metabolic processes. Reach for whole grains such as oats, brown rice and rye.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) are vital nutrients, which help the body to function effectively - particularly the brain through lowering the release of glucocorticoids (stress hormones). A diet rich in essential fatty acids is proven to Include a balance of essential fatty acids in. Essential fats are found in abundance in oily fish, quality oils and nuts and seeds.
Proteins are the basis for every structural element to our body. They are crucial for neurotransmitter (the brain’s chemical messengers) synthesis and needed for healthy brain function. Protein also works to stabilize blood glucose levels, keep mood consistent throughout the day and to support energy production. Include a source of protein with each meal such as lean meats, chicken, eggs, dairy products, legumes and nuts and seeds.
Foods to Avoid:
The immediate effect of alcohol may be calming to some, however, as alcohol is processed by your body, it worsens anxiety by altering levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain.
Avoid caffeinated beverages (eg. coffee black tea, energy drinks, pre-workouts). Caffeine increases cortisol (our stress hormone) further exacerbating symptoms of anxiety. Try Matcha Green tea, although it contains a high amount of caffeine it also contains a high amount of L-Theanine. L- Theanine is an amino acid and inhibits any possible side-effects from caffeine.
How can a nutritionist help with stress and diet?
Seeing a clinical nutritionist is highly beneficial if you want to make long-term positive changes to your diet and manage stress. A nutritionist will provide an individualised treatment plan and ongoing support to address your needs and goals. A holistic assessment will be conducted to identify any underlying imbalances (nutrient excesses/ deficiencies), other contributing factors to your stress and medical history. Pathology will be analysed to further establish the best treatment for your state. From here, you will be given a highly detailed and individualised nutrition plan to follow and bring your body back into a state of balance. You will also be given tools to use within your every day life (exercise and mindfulness exercises) to create a holistic and long term plan to manage your stress response.