Each day we encounter a number of different physical, emotional, physiological, chemical, nutritional or environmental stressors that we need to respond or adapt to. Whether it’s stress induced from a workout, the pressure to hit a deadline, harsh chemicals looming in the air or mending a difficult relationship, the way your body physically reacts to stress will always be the same—the same physiological systems will be involved and the same hormones will be released. While not all stress is bad, when we experience too much for too long, there can be serious consequences to our health.
When we encounter a perceived threat, our body’s natural response to stress triggers the hypothalamus, a tiny region in the brain’s base. From there, this alarm message is sent to the adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys, to secrete the stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. While adrenaline causes your heart rate to increase, elevated levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol increases glucose levels in the bloodstream. This is our normal, healthy “fight or flight” response.
When we’re under persistent stress, this “fight-or-flight” reaction will stay turned on. I’ve worked with many clients who knew they were stressed but didn’t realize the extent to which it was impacting their health until they completed a stress reaction assessment. These clients, like so many of us, were living under chronic stress and it’s this ongoing physiological stress response that contributes to a variety of health issues including:
Stress diverts energy away from digestion, oftentimes disrupting nutrient absorption and driving inflammation. The result is persistent symptoms such as bloating, gas, heartburn and constipation or diarrhea as well as food and/or environmental sensitivities.
Since chronic stress suppresses the immune system, it may increase risk for infections and illness and you may have a harder time shaking them.
Chronic stress can break down bone and muscle over time and increase a tendency toward neck and back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia or TMJ.
Chronic stress increases the risk of depression and contributes to mood changes, memory decline, foggy brain, migraines and sleep disturbances.
Stress related hormonal changes can result in the following effects:
- Decreased serotonin, creating sugar/carbohydrate cravings and lower mood
- Decreased melatonin, disrupting sleep quality
- Increased insulin, which shuts down ability to burn fat especially around the midsection
- Lowered thyroid function, which impacts energy levels and the ability to lose weight effectively
While it’s impossible and unnecessary to completely eliminate stress, there are several ways to better manage it. While an effective stress management plan incorporates a variety of different lifestyle strategies, a great place you can start implementing better habits is with your nutrition.
Practice more mindful eating
Thanks to today’s fast paced culture, we’ve become experts at speed eating, distracted eating and situational eating. Now more than ever, it’s so important to slow down to be aware of the food we consume and how it affects our body. While many of us may not have an hour to spare, do what you can to carve out 15 minutes for an uninterrupted meal. Chewing slowly, being aware of the food you’re eating, acknowledging hunger and satiety cues and treating mealtime as an oasis can help increase your enjoyment of food, improves digestion and help you feel more satisfied with less bloating, indigestion or other gastrointestinal issues.
Be smarter about carbs
When under a lot of stress, it can be tempting to “self-medicate” with junk foods, especially highly processed, high-carb foods.[i] Eating them provides a short-term sense of relaxation as hormone levels fluctuate. Stress also stimulates an increased preference for sugary, salty, high-carb foods. But, these foods can also increase cortisol levels, setting someone up for a vicious cycle highs and lows in both cortisol and cravings.
The higher and faster we elevate our blood sugar levels, the more insulin our bodies secrete. The more insulin we secrete, the faster our blood sugar falls, which can stimulate more cortisol secretion — like a never-ending rollercoaster ride. To help stabilize blood sugar, choose unrefined carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, squash or other colorful produce.
Choose antioxidant-rich foods
Antioxidants, commonly found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, are compounds that the body uses to help fend off potential damages from harmful molecules called free radicals. When too many of these free radicals accumulate in our system, it can lead to oxidative stress that can increase risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. One of the best ways to boost antioxidants is to up your intake of fruits and vegetables. Aim for half of your plate filled with veggies at most meals plus 1-2 servings of fruits per day. Antioxidants are most abundant in these food groups, but can also be found in spices, herbs, nuts, seeds, cocoa, and some grains.
Get your fish oil
Heart-healthy omega-3 fats, which can be found in fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines, as well is some nuts and seeds, can help reduce inflammation, promote healthy cognitive function and regulate blood pressure. Omega-3s also play a crucial role in regulating neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, both of which impact our motivation and mood. When we don’t get enough omega-3s, the cell membrane transporting dopamine and serotonin can get thrown off or even blocked and can impact many functions throughout the body, most notably our mood and sleep.
Watch your caffeine intake
While it’s tempting to reach for another cup of coffee, soda or energy drink in an effort to make it through a stressful day, too much caffeine can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress since it keeps your cortisol ramped up when it shouldn’t be. For example, say you have a cup of coffee at noon (about 200 milligrams), by 8 p.m. there will be roughly 100 milligrams of caffeine still in your system. As a general rule of thumb, when caffeine is consumed, every 8 hours that passes, the amount of caffeine left in your system can be cut in half. Using the previous example, caffeine will linger in your system until 4 a.m. so try to curb caffeine intake before noon.
Focus on protein intake
While some of these strategies may take some time to implement into your routine, if you’re going to focus on one thing right away, focus on getting enough protein. Not only does protein help stabilize blood sugar and energy levels, but its core components — amino acids — help your body make serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. Adequate protein at each meal is also critical for helping maintain lean muscle and immune health amidst chronic stress.
The importance of sleep
When you find yourself in a constant overdrive mode, the chances of getting a quality 7-8 hours of sleep may feel like it’s out of the question. While lack of quality sleep can lead to inflammation, stubborn weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, it can also impact our emotional wellbeing and influence how well our body responds to stress.
When clients are looking for ways to improve their sleep, the first place to start is by going to bed with intention. Create a routine that reduces stimuli and supports restful sleep. Many of us spend our day in “fight-or-flight” mode and expect to flip a switch as soon as we succumb to sleep. However, we need to create a routine that signals our body to transition to rest mode. Start by powering down all electronics 1-2 hours before bed. Screens emit blue light that can increase cortisol and suppress our natural melatonin production. Instead, spend that time connecting with loved ones. Social connection has major impacts on health and may even influence cortisol production.
As another way to help improve sleep patterns is through natural supplements like Restore PM Complex. It’s a nighttime formula designed to help calm the mind and enhance the quality and/or quantity of sleep. Some of its key ingredients include botanical extracts known for their relaxant properties and ability to reduce tension and promote sleep without causing morning grogginess.†
- Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is thought to induce GABA production in the brain†
- Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) may reduce sensations of anxiety†
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been suggested to improve calmness†
- German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) may support more restful sleep†
Neurotransmitter modulating ingredients shown to promote calmness, ease sensations of anxiety and improve quality of sleep:
- Vitamin B-6 which is involved in serotonin production†
- PharmaGABA™ which can promote activity of calming neurotransmitters in the brain†
- L-Theanine clinically shown to reduce stress and improve quality of sleep†
- 5-HTP as a precursor to serotonin†
- Melatonin a hormone involved in regulating our circadian (sleep/wake) rhythms†
If you’re looking to have a better grasp on how stress is impacting your health and wellbeing, consider taking a stress reaction assessment. The test provides insights into how your body is responding and adapting to stress and includes a personalized nutrition and lifestyle action plan based on your unique profile to promote a more optimal response to stress.
In health, Anika Christ – Director – Digital Programming & Events – Life Time Weight Loss
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.