Stress is a common problem that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives. There are many factors that bring stress upon the body – external pressures such as work or family responsibilities, and internal influences – what we eat and how our digestive, immune and nervous systems are functioning.
The good news is that there are plenty of simple lifestyle changes that we can make to help us to manage our stress levels. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, depressed or struggling to cope, help is available – visit the NHS website or speak to your GP.
How stress affects the body…
Stress triggers a set of biological responses including:
- The release of stress hormones from your adrenal glands – adrenaline and cortisol
- An increase in blood sugar
- Rising blood pressure
- Rapid heart beat
All these responses, known as ‘fight or flight’, are designed to help you meet physical challenges that threaten your survival when faced with stress (e.g. how your body would respond if you were being chased by lions). The trouble is, in today’s high stress culture, the stress response continually remains on full alert and the body does not have a chance to recover.
How hormones are affected…
The adrenal glands, nestled on the upper, inner surface of each kidney, produce the main stress response hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Over time, the adrenal glands may become overworked and have difficulty producing the right amount of these hormones.
How diet can help
Eating a balanced and healthy diet is key to helping our bodies to manage the physiological changes caused by stress. An important part of any stress response includes identifying and reducing the causes of stress. Adrenal function is significantly influenced by blood sugar levels, therefore much of the dietary advice below aims to stabilise levels of sugar in the blood.
Choose whole, natural foods and ensure a minimum of five portions of non-starchy vegetables per day – and eat a rainbow!
Start the day with a balanced breakfast. Avoid sugary cereals, pastries and too much caffeine.
Prioritise protein. When chronically stressed the body has an increased demand for protein. Protein requirements are estimated at 0.7-1.8g per kg body weight daily. Choose lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds in each meal. Protein helps to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream.
Try not to skip meals. Ensure that you eat regularly, taking healthy snacks as necessary. Small, regular meals will help to maintain energy levels and mood, while decreasing tiredness and irritability.
Avoid highly refined foods such as white bread, pasta, chocolate, biscuits, sweets or foods with added sugars. Hidden sugars are also in many cereals, breads, tinned produce and processed or packaged foods. Replace processed foods with the unrefined foods such as brown bread, rice, oats and rye. Note that excess alcohol can also cause imbalanced blood sugar levels.
Watch the caffeine. Stimulants such as tea and coffee may provide a temporary energy boost, but consuming too much may reduce energy levels and deplete nutrients in the long term. Aim to drink at least 1-1.5 litres of filtered water throughout the day and try incorportating herbal or fruit teas instead of caffeinated drinks.
Emotional eating. Try not to reach for food when you are in a stressed state. Stress diverts blood flow away from your digestive system, which you don’t want when you are trying to digest your food. You may experience bloating, gas and become prone to discomfort.
Nutrients that specifically support the adrenal glands include:
Vitamin C found in most fresh fruit and vegetables. It is stored in the adrenal gland and is required to make cortisol.
Magnesium is dramatically depleted in times of stress, and symptoms of deficiency often include fatigue, anxiety, insomnia and predisposition to stress. Include plenty of dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds to supply adequate levels of magnesium.
- B vitamins can help to support adrenal function, particularly B5 which directly supports adrenal cortex and hormone production. Sources include wholegrains, nuts and seeds.
Other ways to reduce stress
Meditation is a great way to calm your mind, plus it’s free and you can do it anywhere, anytime.
Yoga may help with practicing mindfulness – not only is it a great form of exercise but it incorporates meditation to slow down and calm the body and mind.
Get outside for fresh air and to connect with nature.
Good quality sleep is of utmost importance for long term health and regeneration. Few people can function properly with less than seven or eight hours of sleep per night.
Regular, gentle exercise is very beneficial for relieving stress and decreasing negative emotions such as worry or anxiety. However, for people with significantly depleted adrenal hormones, intensive cardiovascular exercise may further deplete adrenal reserves.
Regular relaxation needs to be built into daily life. Reading, having a bath, getting a massage or listening to music are great ways to promote relaxation.
Counselling or other therapies may be beneficial for those having to cope in the face of severe stressors.
If you are feeling stressed and anxious, do not disregard it. Seek advice from your GP or health professional.
This article was last reviewed on 30 January 2019.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years, she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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Do you regularly feel stressed or have you found clever ways to cope with the pressures of modern life? Let us know below…