If you are living a high stress lifestyle, nothing you eat is about to change that. But, you can change how your body copes with stress by making careful food choices.
Stress is often thought of as a modern day illness but, in fact, the stress reaction has been fundamental to man’s survival throughout the ages. In prehistoric times, the stress reaction was a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, vital for survival in life-threatening situations. Today’s stresses are less likely to be of the life-threatening variety but the human body still responds by reacting as if they are!
“Stress is the trash of modern life – we all generate it but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life” – Danzae Pace
The stress reaction
The adrenal glands, situated just above the kidneys, release a hormone called adrenaline when the body is under stress. The release of adrenalin brings about a number of physical reactions designed to help the body deal with the current crisis.
1. The liver releases sugar into the blood to supply the body with an extra surge of energy for the ‘fight-or flight’ response – fight the danger or run away from it!
2. The breathing rate increases so that more oxygen can be taken in
3. The heart rate speeds up so that the extra sugar and oxygen can be pumped quickly to the brain and the muscles
4. Cholesterol levels rise to thicken the blood so it will clot more easily in the event of an injury
5. Digestion slows down as it not an essential function in a crisis
All of the above reactions were once crucial when living with life or death situations, such as coming face-to-face with a man-eating beast, on a daily basis and they prepared the body to deal with an immediate danger. Today’s stresses are more likely to be along the lines of coming face-to-face with a disgruntled bank manager or trying to meet a looming dead-line with a million things still to be done. The ‘dangers’ are no longer so immediate and common sources of stress, such as financial worries, traffic jams, crowds and noise are much longer term in nature. However, the body still responds to each stressful situation as an immediate, short-term danger so it’s being subjected to the physical effects of the stress reaction over much longer periods of time. It is this prolonged stress response that leads to stress related illness.
Common symptoms of stress:
- Back and neck ache
- High blood pressure
- Frequent colds and flu
- Digestive disorders: indigestion, heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation (sometimes ulcers)
These symptoms are the result of the body failing to cope with the excessive nutritional demands being placed upon it by the stress reaction. Ironically, individuals living with stress often eat nutritionally poor diets. A fast paced, high stress lifestyle tends to go hand-in-hand with fast food eating habits, high sugar foods and often a high caffeine intake.
When the body is under stress, it has different nutritional needs. The B vitamins are important for converting protein, carbohydrates, and fats into energy in order to cope with increased needs during a stress reaction. Vitamin B5 is essential for the adrenal glands to function normally and it is considered to be the ‘anti-stress vitamin’ because it helps the body cope with stress.
Vitamin C is also key for adrenal gland function but it can quickly become depleted when the stress reaction places increased demands on the glands.
A number of minerals are equally important in anti-stress nutrition. Extra potassium is needed. When extra stress is placed on the body, the increased energy production causes potassium to be excreted but replacing it is important as it plays a role in nerve cell function. Magnesium is needed for efficient nerve transmission but levels can also become depleted during periods of stress. A deficiency can cause fatigue, mental confusion, and insomnia. Calcium is also important in maintaining healthy nerve function and works with magnesium to combat irritability and insomnia.
Found in liver and brewer’s yeast
- Vitamin B5 – the anti-stress vitamin
Found in mushrooms and avocado
Found in blackcurrants, green pepper, mango, and papaya
Transports oxygen to the brain and found in liver, wholemeal bread, eggs, and meat
Found in green leafy vegetables
Found in dairy products and green leafy vegetables
Periods of prolonged stress can lead to the body becoming deficient in the above listed vitamins and minerals so the nervous system begins to function less efficiently. During stress the body also digests and absorbs food less efficiently so it becomes difficult to replace these key anti-stress nutrients. A vicious circle begins: the body needs the nutrients to combat the effects of the stress reaction but the effects of the stress reaction make it difficult for the body to get them!
Not so anti-stress nutrients
When you feel under stress it’s tempting to turn to comforts such as chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine if you’re a smoker. Unfortunately, they only compound the problem. Alcohol and tobacco will increase adrenal output – already a physical response in the stress reaction – and they can interfere with normal sleep patterns. A lack of sleep will only add to the body’s burden. Caffeine can also disrupt sleep and in some people it can induce irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not have a ‘calming’ effect on the body and research has shown that individuals with a dependency on alcohol are four times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than those who don’t.
Tips to help you eat your way to less stress
- Eat lots of fruit and vegetables to boost essential vitamin and mineral levels
- Eat in a relaxed environment to give your body the best chance of digesting and absorbing essential vitamins and minerals
- Avoid junk foods – they use up valuable nutrients to digest empty calories, cause imbalances in blood sugar levels and can result in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and irritability
- Avoid foods that may cause an allergic reaction – they may lead to a stress reaction
- Reduce your caffeine intake – try replacing coffee and tea with herbal and fruit teas
- When under stress, do not drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or take recreational drugs
Finding ways to incorporate anti-stress nutrients into your daily diet is very much a case of personal choice but here’s a sample daily menu created by nutritionist Oona van den Berg for the book Brain Food.
Stress-busting menu for a day
Molasses with muesli and thick yoghurt
Unsweetened fruit juice
Mango and avocado salad with smoked chicken
Walnut and sunflower seed snacks
Griddled liver and bacon with grilled potatoes
Poached guava with yoghurt
Fresh fruits, especially papaya
Herbal and fruit teas
Not all stress is a bad thing. In small doses it can tone up the body’s reaction times, increase motivation, and add a bit of excitement to life. It’s the continued exposure to the effects of the stress reaction that can be detrimental to health. Eating well will clearly help your body to cope with the excessive nutritional demands the stress reaction creates but it will also be of great benefit to your body to allow it some ‘time off’ now and again. There are no sabre-toothed tigers chasing you – take a break!
“The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it” – Author Unknown