Did you know that April is stress awareness month? I am sure you are all too aware of stress, but do you know what stress does to the body and importantly do you know how the right nutrition can help?
What is stress?
Stress is generally defined as anything that disrupts the body’s internal balance, it is unavoidable and a bit of stress is not a bad thing. However, when stress becomes long term or chronic it can become a problem.
Chronic stress can arise from something external to the body like a traumatic experience, a horrible daily commute, a difficult relationship or a bullying boss. It can also arise from biological stimuli such as an infection, nutrient poor diet, pain, hunger or temperature extremes. So, it doesn’t really matter what is causing the stress the body responds in the same way. Stress is more than just a feeling, it is a physiological response.
How does the body respond to stress?
A stressor activates the hypothalamus in the brain which messages the pituitary, which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones, the main one being cortisol. This happens in seconds and it is cortisol that prepares our body for a response either ‘fight, flight or freeze’. When the stress has been removed a negative feedback mechanism should stop the production of cortisol and all can return to normal. However, if the stress continues to trigger the hypothalamus then cortisol will continue to be produced.
Cortisol sends signals around the body that you are under attack. In the short term it is great at helping us get through giving a presentation or jumping out of the way of a speeding motorist. While in contrast high levels have a detrimental effect on many parts of our body.
How do high levels of stress affect the body?
The immune system
During stress the immune cells are being bathed in molecules which are essentially telling them to stop fighting. So in situations of chronic stress your immune cells are less able to respond to an invader like a bacteria or a virus. In the short term stress hormones are anti-inflammatory. However, chronic levels can become inflammatory and inflammation is the trigger for many diseases.
High cortisol blocks melatonin, which is the hormone responsible for sleep, this means we find it harder to fall and stay asleep.
Cortisol binds to receptors on neurons and influences the way they connect and communicate. Continual cortisol release is very damaging to neurons, particularly those in the hippocampus — the region of the brain involved in learning and memory. Too much cortisol prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus to shrink, consequently reducing the powers of learning and memory.
Stress hormones shut down digestion and negatively impact our gut microbiome. They also reduce secretory IgA, which plays an important role in protecting the lining of the gut. As a result gut health is markedly reduced.
Therefore, with the wide ranging impact of stress hormones on the body, it is possible chronic stress could play a role in many, many diseases. So it’s really important that we do what we can to protect ourselves.
As a nutritional therapist I have heard in my clinic many stories of how a stressful event triggered the patient’s current health problems. For example several months of immense stress at work triggered irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in a woman in her 30s. Similarly for a university student months of eating badly, drinking too much and burning the candle at both ends resulted in glandular fever that he couldn’t seem to shake.
How do you know if stress is becoming an issue for you?
Symptoms you might experience when stress hormones are chronically elevated:
- tendency to gain weight on the stomach
- an increased appetite and/ or increased cravings for sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol
- a slump in the middle of the afternoon
- a low immune system (frequent colds/infections)
- digestive problems
- muscle aches and pains
- hair loss
- difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness
- depression or mood swings
- increased PMS or changes in menstruation
- tiredness, yet an inability to sleep well
So what should you eat to protect yourself?
5 things to eat to provide some protection from stress
It is well known that stress depletes magnesium and yet magnesium helps us to deal with stress, helps keep us calm and improves energy and sleep. So when going through a stressful time make sure you up your magnesium intake. The top 5 magnesium rich foods to eat on a daily basis are spinach, avocado, pumpkin seeds, almonds and 100% cocoa.
2. Vitamin C
Might be best known for helping the immune system, but vitamin C is needed in abundance by the adrenal glands, which can become depleted during chronic stress. The top 5 vitamin C rich foods to eat on daily basis, surprisingly for some doesn’t include oranges. They are blackcurrants, red peppers, guava, kiwifruit and green peppers.
3. Good healthy fats
The brain is mostly made up of fat and it needs fat to repair membranes and create new neurons after stress. The right fats are also anti-inflammatory and so will dampen damaging inflammation caused by stress. Best foods to eat for good healthy fats are cold water oily fish like sardines, mackerel and salmon – choose wild where possible. Nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil and coconut oil.
4. Fermented foods
Fermented foods are great for providing live bacteria to support the microbiome in our gastrointestinal tract (GI), which are depleted in times of stress. Best fermented foods are unpasteurised sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir. These can be found in the fridge section of a good health food shop.
Antioxidants protect us from the free radical damage that can occur in excessive amounts during stress. Free radicals are little highly reactive molecules that can bounce around our bodies damaging anything they touch. Therefore, an abundance of antioxidants are needed to quench them. Antioxidant rich foods and herbs include, berries especially goji and blueberries, 100% cocoa, turmeric, cinnamon and pecans.
Other ways to enhance your resilience to stress
- Take up yoga or go for a walk each day. Be careful with too much exercise though, which when excessive can become a stress in itself, go gently.
- Meditation has been proven to calm the brain and relax the body.
- Find an outlet for stress, don’t bottle it up. Talk, write, shout – get it out.
- Ensure that every day you do something relaxing. What is relaxing can be very individual, but it could be reading, having a bath, listening to music, singing, a movie, lunch with friends, any, all or none of the above. Find what relaxes you and do it regularly.
I hope you find these tips helpful and easy to apply in your life. If you would like more help on how you can combat your own stress, feel free to contact me for a free 10 minute phone consultation on 07977155516 or use the contact form https://tnmclinic.com/contact/
Written by Michele Kingston Nutritional Therapist at The Nutritional Medicine Clinic