Do you remember the last time you lay awake in the early morning hours with worries about money, work, the economy, family responsibilities or personal health issues bombarding you? Considering the amount of stress people are dealing with today, it may have been just last night!
Sleep isn’t the only thing you lose when dealing with significant stress. It can also rob you of your good health, causing hypertension, high blood pressure, obesity, heart issues and even addiction. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual survey called Stress in America, and each year the results accentuate what they call “the serious physical and emotional implications of stress and the inextricable link between the mind and body.”
Indeed, stress affects your body, mood and behavior. Common symptoms reported by Mayo Clinic include:
- BODY: headache, sleep problems, muscle tension, fatigue, stomach upset, change in sex drive, brain fog, chest pain and high blood pressure.
- MOOD: anxiety, depression and sadness, restlessness, irritability or anger, lack of motivation or focus, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Learning how to identify and handle these emotional stressors can a very positive impact on your overall health.
- BEHAVIOR: overeating or undereating, less exercise, angry outbursts, social withdrawal, drug or alcohol abuse, and tobacco use.
While there are countless recommendations for managing with this physical or mental pressure, such as regular activity, a sense of humor, relaxation techniques, socializing and hobbies, I feel as though one area doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I believe a main strategy in stress management centers on diet.
How Stress Affects Diet
I think we’ve all been there. You’re stressed out, you open the cupboard at home or you stop at the fast food restaurant, and you start eating … and eating … and suddenly you realize you need to stop! Stress eating is a common impulse, and it often involves naughty food. (STRESSED is DESSERTS spelled backwards after all!)
Harvard Medical School reports that cortisol, the hormone released with stress, increases appetite and the motivation to eat. And, “if the stress doesn’t go away, cortisol may stay elevated.” This is obviously not a good way to live.
You may have noticed that being anxious often influences your food choices — and not for the better. In distress, we tend to gravitate toward high-sugar and high-fat (hyperpalatable) items. Harvard indicates that it may have something to do with the combination of high cortisol levels and high insulin levels, the hunger hormone ghrelin, or the fact that these foods may inhibit brain activity that produces and processes stress. So living in such a state, over time, puts you in a cycle of continuous cravings.
Of course, since high-sugar, high-fat foods like potato chips are convenient and easy to grab along the way, that makes it doubly hard to avoid them. So just insuring that you always have readily available, nutritious foods available to snack on likes nuts or fruit can go along way toward improving your food options when you’re overcome with pressures.
Stress has a big impact on digestion, too. Due to the way we are “wired,” our bodies have a hard time managing stress and digesting food at the same time. Our stress response causes all of our energy to go to “the attack” at hand, not giving a thought to digesting food.
Depending on your constitution, this can either leave unmetabolized food in the gut, which can lead to constipation, digestive detox issues, bloating, pain, gas and weight gain, or cause food to pass so quickly that there isn’t time for nutrient absorption, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, the physiologic stress response can cause the sphincter between the esophagus and the stomach to spasm, so stomach acid makes its way into the esophagus and burns the lining, best known as heartburn. It may also produce a chemical reaction that wipes out a majority of your good gut bacteria, as well as cause metabolism to slow.
How Diet Can Help Manage Stress
A healthy diet goes a long way in naturally managing daily physical or mental pressures. Some foods provide comfort, lower stress hormone levels and increase “feel good” hormones like serotonin. It’s not always the nutrients, but sometimes the effect that helps matters. What you eat can affect how you handle the stresses of everyday life. Here are a few suggestions:
Foods for Stress Management
- Leafy Greens
Foods like spinach, collard greens and kale deliver magnesium, which plays a role in cortisol level regulation, and stress-reducing B vitamins.
- Complex Carbohydrates
Since carbs can encourage serotonin — a neurotransmitter in the brain that boosts mood and lowers stress — production, they are a good option. Carbs also have the comfort factor. It is important to choose complex carbs, however, because they take longer to digest and can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
- Naturally Fatty Fish
Fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, halibut and herring contain omega-3 fatty acids, which tend to stop stress hormone surges. Fish oil can reduce the sense of mental pressure and support cardiovascular health.
- Nuts & Seeds
Healthy portions of almonds, pistachios and walnuts are another good source of healthy fats, which can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, soothe inflammation in the arteries, and protect from the effects of stress. Their B vitamins can help reduce this sense of pressure. Be careful to watch your portions though.
The relaxing effect of warm milk tends to ease anxiety and promote relaxation. The calcium helps with stress reduction, and vitamin D supports muscle relaxation and healthy mood. Milk also contains antioxidants, two B vitamins and a protein called lactium that has a calming effect.
- Dark Chocolate
Lower stress with both a chemical and emotional impact by eating limited amounts of dark chocolate. Its antioxidants may help reduce stress hormone levels, while savoring this rich indulgence can be comforting.
Oranges and grapefruit contain high levels of vitamin C, which is good for the immune system and may lower stress hormone levels like that of cortisol.
Avocados are packed with potassium, which may help to reduce high blood pressure, and omega-3s, which can reduce stress and improve mood and concentration. They also contain stress-relieving B vitamins. This is a great option for a snack when you’re craving fat. Again, watch portion size.
Supplements for Stress Management
If you do not consume enough stress-busting foods in your diet, you may benefit from supplements known as adaptogens. These herbal formulas were originally used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, when they were referred to as balancing tonics. Herbalists recognized that plants had the ability to “adapt” to harsh growing conditions and weather conditions as a survival instinct. The thought was that if plants can withstand stress, their DNA may work to make us more resilient and adaptable.
Here are a few of our best sellers here at Natural Healthy Concepts:
Cortisol Manager by Integrative Therapeutics
Vital Adapt by Natura
Ashwagandha by Organic India
Adren-All by Ortho Molecular
Rhodiola Rosea by Pure Encapsulations
Have you had success managing stress by making your diet a priority? Share your story in the comments below!