Supporting stress through nutrition
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Whilst writing this blog, I can hear continual news stories about COVID-19 and the profound impact it is having on the world, and cant help but to think about how much stress this is creating for everyone – stress around health concerns, concerns for loved one, stress around the economy, money, childcare and what the world will be like when we have come through this virus.
Stress affects how we cope mentally, emotionally and physically, with high levels of stress being able to diminish your immune system and impact nearly all systems in the body.
How do I know if I am stressed?
Stress can mean different things to different people – there are 2 main types of stress – internal and external stress, and in a very basic way we can often go through 3 stages of stress which I will discuss shortly.
Stress can present itself in different ways depending on how long it has been going on for, and how much stress you have going on. Signs can include anything from feeling low and having anxiety, sleep disturbances, comfort eating, short temper, upset stomachs, headaches, not being able to switch off, feeling irritable, feeling over emotional and feeling strong heart beats in your chest.
Internal V’s external stress
In life, we are exposed to two main types of stress – internal stress and external stress. External stress is anything that occurs outside the body – running late for a meeting, bumping your car into a lamp post, the impact of the corona virus, arguing with a loved one – the list goes on.
Internal stress is anything that happens inside the body – the internal dialogue you have with yourself can create stress, too much caffeine, irregular blood sugar levels, lack of quality sleep, dehydration, being nutrient depleted, and having a high exposure to light, noise, pollution and toxins.
The key to remember is that our bodies can not differentiate the difference between internal and external stress – they can only interpret it as stress and the same chain of chemical reactions will take place.
Whilst external stress is often something that is out of our control, internal stress is often within our control. By making some small changes to bring this internal stress down your body will be better able to cope with the external stress and the ever changing world around us.
What are the 3 stages of stress?
Stage 1. The alarm phase – This is also know as the fight or flight phase. When we are in the alarm phase our bodies release adrenaline into your blood. Your heart beats faster, your breathing speeds up, your muscles tense and your attention narrows to focus on the stressor.
This phase is our innate stress response. The problem is, we are designed to experience the alarm phase in short sharp bursts and then for the stress to be removed and our alarm phase reversed back to normal functioning. Our bodies haven’t adapted to modern day living and ongoing stress. Because of this, we can then go into stage 2 and stage 3.
Stage 2. Resistance stage - This is where our bodies adapt to the continued presence of the stressor. You may think you are no longer stressed because the symptoms of the alarm stage disappear. The work your body does during the resistance stage uses up a lot of energy and you may become tired, irritable and less able to handle stress.
Stage 3. Exhaustion stage - This is where your body can no longer keep up with the demands placed on it. Your emotion and physical resources are depleted. Exhaustion usually occurs if you have been exposed to a particular stressor for a long time – usually weeks/ months or years.
So how do we easily support our bodies to reduce our stress levels?
The key is to see if there are any areas that can be changed to reduce your exposure to external stress , but then really focus on your levels of internal stress as these are often the factors that we can control. Even making a few small adjustments can make a huge difference. The areas I would suggest focusing on are:
Reduce your intake of caffeine and stimulants
Coffee, coca cola, pepsi, red bull and other caffeinated drinks will be giving your body a big hit of adrenaline keeping you in the alarm or resistance phase. How many of these do you drink each day? Start cutting them down. If you intake is high, don’t go cold turkey as you can often find you will feel quite poorly from doing this. Instead try reducing your caffeine by 1 a day for a week, then another cup for the following week and so on.
Build up your hydration levels
At the same time as cutting down on caffeine, think about really boosting up your water intake. This is something so many of us can forget to do. We often use coffee and sugar to give us a boost of energy, but one of the first signs of dehydration is tiredness. Our bodies need to be fully hydrated to not only function properly but to really thrive, give you a clear mind and to be able to focus.
Balance your blood sugar levels
Your blood sugar levels represent how much energy you have going round in your blood stream at any one time. If we eat sugar or any white refined carbohydrate and even fruit juices our blood sugar levels peak really high really quickly which creates an initial burst of energy, but it is really stressful for the body. When it is really high our body will release insulin, a hormone to reduce this level. When insulin is activated, it works by removing all the sugar from your blood stream so suddenly your blood sugar levels are rock bottom. When this happens you will feel tired, irritable, have trouble concentrating and will really crave something sugary. When your blood sugar levels do this yoyo effect of going really high and then really low, it is one of the biggest contributors to internal stress. A great thing to think about is reducing your intake of sugar and boosting your intake of protein especially with snacks. This will help give your body a nice steady release of energy throughout the day and keep the body calm.
As mentioned above protein is very good at stabilising blood sugar levels, but can also have other benefits to stress as well. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Research shows different amino acids can affect different parts of the body – some have been shown to promote the release of melatonin – this is the sleep hormone, and sleep can often get disturbed when stressed, but some also can help promote relaxation. Protein doesn’t just need to come from animal sources, but can come from plant sources as well such as chickpeas, lentils, tofu, kidney beans, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
These are a group of vitamins that all work together to help our energy, mood and neurotransmitters. These vitamins are water soluble which means our body can not store them so we need a really good daily supply. Our bodies also use these up during the stress response, so if you have a lot of stress you can find that you can easily become depleted in B vitamins leaving you feeling tired, low and unable to easily concentrate. B vitamins are found in whole-grains, meat, nuts seeds and green leafy vegetables. Sometimes, when we have a lot of stress we need to give our bodies an extra boost of these key vitamins through supplementation (as long as it is safe for you to do so) If you want to do this, I would advise getting a B complex which is a mixture of all the B vitamins together. If we just supplement one, it can displace how well we absorb the other B vitamins so having them in one combination is often advisable.
This is an essential fatty acid and found in oily fish, walnut oil, soya beans, chia seeds, flaxseeds. Walnuts and edamame beans. Omega 3 is known for its anti-inflammatory effects but also is key in promoting a healthy nervous system and healthy brain function. Try boosting your intake of omega 3 foods, although if you are really struggling speak to me about getting this through supplement form.
This is an adaptogenic herb that many report to help the body build up its resilience to stress. If you have long term or going stress, this is certainly something to consider taking (as long as it is safe for you to do so) as a supplementation
Don’t forget to think about our lifestyle factors…
When reducing stress, it is important to remember that the body and mind are intrinsically linked, and you cant focus on balancing one without the other.
Many of us are now being asked to work from home, which means we wont have a clear cut off from work having a work/ home life balance.
If you can, try and find one space in your house that you will use for work, and at the end of the working day turn off your laptop/ computer and step away from that space. Always being ‘on’ and contactable can be incredibly draining, and it is really important to find the balance and switch off.
There are lots of mindfulness apps that can really help – headspace and calm are just two examples. They are often just 10 minutes a day to help calm the mind, give you time to breath properly and help switch off the physical reactions of being in phase 1 and phase 2 of the stress response.
With all things, be patient with your self. Take time in the day to plan for your wellbeing and see if you can implement any of these changes to help support your body against the stress response. You will be surprised the difference even a few small changes can make to how you feel physically and emotionally.