- What happens during stress
- Why food choices are so important during times of stress
- Stress supportive nutrients
In this fast paced world stress is inevitable, whether it is psychosocial stress from work pressures, emotional stress from a difficult relationship or loss of a loved one, or physical stress from over-exercising or a lack of sleep.
Stress can leave you feeling wrung out and ‘tired but wired’.
Food choices often change in times of stress and it is common to reach for the not so helpful foods.
We always provide you with both insightful information and evidence-based content to provide you with actionable knowledge and tips you can trust, to help you on your journey to optimal health.
In this article we discuss what happens during stress, why your food choices are so important in times of stress and our top 5 stress supportive nutrients.
The adrenal glands are two small glands that sit on the top part of each kidney - they play a vital role to help the body to adapt and respond to changes and threats.
When faced with danger, the adrenal glands secrete the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare the body to run or attack. This is the ‘fight or flight’ system.
In the modern world this system still functions, but is perpetually turned on by stressful situations, thoughts, emotions or perceptions.
This leads to an over reactive stress pathway which disrupts hormone balance and leads to symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, depression, anxiety, aches and pains, digestive problems, increased PMS, irritability and a sense of being ‘overwhelmed’.
Each person experiences stress in a different way and for some people just a loud noise may well set off the stress response, while for another it would take a bigger event to give the same reaction.
Stress can accumulate and over time, lots of stressful aspects of day to day life can build up until eventually we hit 'overwhelm' and risk of burn out.
One of the key functions of stress hormones is to ready energy supplies to enable the body to react effectively.
Imagine trying to run away when your energy reserves are low - you wouldn’t get far from a fast approaching predator.
Although this isn’t a situation that occurs often anymore, the stress response is still used for balancing blood sugar.
During times of low blood sugar the adrenals are called upon to release hormones to help keep blood sugar balanced.
Erratic eating patterns, skipping meals, eating sugary and refined foods all contribute to imbalances in blood sugar - therefore putting pressure on the adrenals.
It can be ironic that when faced with a stressful situation the body craves foods and substances that in the long term have negative consequences like sweet foods, sugary drinks and stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
This is a clever way for the body to gain that ‘hit’ of energy and although may seem useful in the short term as it improves energy, in the long term it leads to disaster as there is always a resulting drop in hormones and blood sugar - leading to more cravings.
This rollercoaster ride of blood sugar and adrenal hormones can impact the body in many ways and long term issues with blood sugar and insulin resistance, inflammation (2), digestion (3), cardiovascular issues (4) and mental health (5) often follow.
Choosing to eat nourishing and supportive foods allows the body to keep an even blood sugar and to take the pressure off the adrenals.
Ensuring a good, balanced intake of food throughout the day and avoiding skipping meals is also important.
If you are finding the cravings for negative foods are a problem, keeping your mind busy can be helpful.
Activities like mindfulness, visualisation and meditation can help.
Creative activities also keep your mind busy - scrap booking, arts and crafts and gardening have a much more positive effect on the body and mind compared to giving in to the cravings and reaching for an espresso and Danish pastry.
In order to rebalance the body during times of stress specific nutrients are required.
Including these nutrients can significantly impact the negative effects of stress and help to reduce the symptoms.
Here are our top 5 stress supportive nutrients:
Known as ‘nature's tranquilliser’, magnesium is a mineral that aids in many reactions within the body and is a co-factor for enzymes that synthesise adrenal hormones.
As a result, during times of stress when the body is being asked to produce higher than normal amounts of adrenal hormones, magnesium may become depleted (6).
Magnesium plays an important role in blood sugar regulation (7) and a good intake may help the body to keep levels stable and give a better response to the hormone insulin.
This allows better movement of glucose from the blood and into cells to be used as energy.
Supporting magnesium levels in stressful times can aid not only in restoring levels but also in providing relief from many of the common symptoms associated with stress.
Foods that are naturally rich in magnesium include nuts and seeds - particularly good choices include almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and flax seeds.
Dark green leafy vegetables are also rich in magnesium with spinach at the top of the list. Beans and brown rice also contribute good levels of magnesium.
Don't go overboard with dark chocolate - although it can be classed as a source of magnesium, many commercially available dark chocolates have added sugars and dark chocolate is also a source of caffeine - the darker the chocolate the higher the caffeine level.
Manipulating macronutrient balance (carbohydrate, fat and protein) can give significant support during times of stress.
Protein is vital during times of stress as it has many functions. It helps to delay emptying of the stomach and therefore creates a more even, slow release of energy from food, preventing spikes in blood sugar and consequent ‘dips’ and cravings.
During digestion protein is broken down into amino acids - these are used for immune function, hormone and enzyme synthesis and also as base molecules for making mood and motivation neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
These support good mental health and reduce symptoms like depression, anxiety and apathy.
Good stress supportive proteins include white fish, oily fish, organic grass fed chicken and turkey, eggs, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, beans, brown rice, nuts and seeds.
A good rule of thumb is to have a palm sized portion of protein at each meal.
If beans are your chosen protein source, a good choice is to balance the meal with rice - this ensures all the essential amino acids are supplied.
Chromium is a mineral that is required by the body in only tiny amounts but it has an important role to play during times of stress.
Chromium helps to keep blood sugar stable by aiding the action of insulin (9).
Although needed in trace amounts, chromium can often be low in the diet.
Foods to choose to achieve a good intake include mussels, oysters, broccoli, pears, tomatoes, oats, organic grass fed beef and Brazil nuts.
Many people who increase levels of chromium find that it helps to reduce sugar cravings and can positively influence food choices when faced with a stressful situation.
Although all the B vitamins are supportive during stress, vitamin B5, also known as pantothenic acid, is particularly important.
Concentrated in the adrenals, it is crucial for the production of the stress hormone cortisol and also functions in the breakdown of food for energy (11).
In times of stress it can easily be depleted due to high adrenal hormone demands.
It is thought that low levels of vitamin B5 may contribute to fatigue, headaches and digestive disturbances.
Foods rich in vitamin B5 include organ meats like liver and kidney, trout, tuna, lobster, organic grass fed chicken, Shiitake mushrooms, sunflower seeds, avocado and sweet potato.
It is worth noting that processing meat, fish and vegetables can reduce vitamin B5 content by up to 80%.
This includes canning and freezing so fresh is best.
The essential fatty acids have a wide range of effects within the body and omega-3 fatty acids help the body to adapt to stress hormones (12) as well as supporting better blood sugar balance and improving sensitivity to insulin (13).
Omega-3 fatty acids are used in the body to make anti-inflammatory molecules.
High stress can lead to increased inflammation, causing damage, and omega-3 fats may help combat this.
Modern diets full of processed, packaged and takeaway foods are often high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3.
Although omega-6 does have some benefits to the body, it is when the ratio of omega-6 to -3 is out of balance that health problems occur.
In order to restore balance omega-3 rich foods should be included daily.
Oily fish such as sardines, pilchards, herring, trout, salmon, tuna and mackerel are all high in omega-3 and ideally 2-3 portions a week should be eaten.
Walnuts and seeds such as flax, chia and hemp and also have a type of omega-3.
Another way to restore omega balance is to avoid highly processed and packaged foods and to cook from fresh using whole ingredients.
Supporting the body by making prudent food choices can really help to combat the signs, symptoms and effects of stress.
During intense or chronic stress it can be difficult to know which changes can give the most support.
As there are many different stages of stress a personalised consultation with an experienced practitioner can help you to understand your own personal stress response and how best to deal with it.
Have you tackled your stress through food changes?
What did you find the most beneficial?
Share your personal experience here and help others to combat stress the natural way.
Kelly Rose DipION FdSc VN
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