Stress is a common problem where people feel under a great deal of emotional strain and unable to cope with certain pressures in life. These pressures come in all shapes and forms, from traumatic events to everyday demands such as work and relationships.
While many people feel stressed every now and then, some are living with chronic (long-term) stress - where they are repeatedly exposed to different stressors for an extended period of time. As the body's stress response system is not designed to be constantly activated, the impact of this on health and well-being can be significant.
Understanding how your body responds to stress can be key to managing stressful situations and reducing the impact it has on your health. This page will explore the effects of stress in more detail, highlighting the crucial link between stress and diet - and how healthy nutrition can be key to dealing with stress.
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Why do we get stressed?
When we encounter something stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to prepare it for a physical response. The symptoms we experience when we get stressed - such as increased heart rate and heavy breathing - are best described as physiological responses designed to ensure our survival. This hard-wired 'flight or fight' reaction may have been necessary millions of years ago when survival meant facing immediate and real threats, but in the modern world where threats are minimal, it can have a negative impact on our health.
At times of perceived danger, the physiological changes that occur completely overwhelm the body and all normal functions - triggering hormones to increase heart rate and blood pressure and delivering more oxygen and glucose to important muscles. This prioritising of physical functions over less urgent functions such as digestion means our body has the power to face an enemy or flee. Our immune system is activated, breathing is accelerated and the heart moves into overdrive to support the body.
In the modern world where real threats to our survival are no longer present, day-to-day things such as relationship issues, traffic jams, and demanding children can trigger the body's flight or fight reaction. The greater exposure we have to these stressors, the more intense and frequent our physiological reactions become, until we find ourselves feeling constantly on edge. For those who do not adapt their lifestyles to cope, and 'burn off' the effects of their triggered response system (by keeping fit and eating healthily), stress builds up and can become a health problem.
Effects of stress
If you are feeling stressed, it is very likely that you have experienced the following psychological and physical changes:
Effects of stress on the mind:
- Mood swings.
- Feeling short tempered and prone to snapping at people.
- Becoming withdrawn.
- Agitation and irritability.
- Anxious or racing thoughts.
- Constant worrying.
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing).
- Loss of concentration and focus.
- Feeling over emotional.
Effects of stress on the body:
- Muscle tension.
- Aches and pains.
- Increased heart rate/palpitations.
- Irritations such as rashes and eczema.
- Appetite fluctuations.
- Disturbed sleep/insomnia.
- Comfort eating.
- Increased blood pressure.
These are typically the initial signs that stress is becoming a problem. If it is not effectively managed or treated, it can become chronic, and over time can cause serious harm to health and well-being. Long-term illnesses such as depression, diabetes, heart and cardiovascular problems and bowel trouble may start to develop, so it is crucial that you seek help as soon as you recognise the signs.
Stress and digestion
As aforementioned, the effects of stress on our eating habits and digestion can be significant, leading to appetite fluctuations and digestive problems. This occurs because the activated flight or fight response in the central nervous system immediately shuts down digestion - restricting blood flow, slowing the contractions of the digestive muscles and decreasing secretions needed for digestion. This is so that the body can prioritise more important physical functions, such as heart and breathing rate in order to prepare the body for attack or for escape from a perceived threat.
Furthermore, after a stressful period the human body can go into 'recovery mode' where appetite is increased and food cravings take hold. At the same time, metabolic rates will drop to conserve energy, which means the body is more likely to store fat - particularly around the abdomen. Feeling stressed also leads to an increase in levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that contributes to weight gain.
Alternatively, chronic stress can suppress appetite, which over time can lead to weight-loss. This may also be linked to nervous movement such as pacing, ticks and leg shaking. While some people completely shut down when they are feeling stressed, others unintentionally move more.
Stress and diet
Stress and diet have always been linked. It is possible that someone eating a healthy, balanced diet is going to be far less stressed than someone eating a poor diet. If you are feeling overly stressed, your digestive system is probably under a great deal of strain, therefore making changes to your diet could be key to feeling better physically and emotionally. Below is an overview of stress relieving foods to include in your diet and certain foods to avoid which may help to improve symptoms.
Foods that can have negative effects on the body when under stress include:
A chemical found mostly in tea, coffee and some soft drinks, caffeine reduces our ability to deal with stress. This is because it acts as a stimulant, causing the adrenal glands activated by the flight or fight response to release more hormones like cortisol, which are already high due to the strain our bodies are under. High levels of caffeine also contribute to insomnia and nervousness, which are intrinsically linked to stress.
In addition, caffeine consumption can deplete levels of magnesium (needed for energy production) and metabolism-boosting B vitamins from the body. Substituting coffees and teas for herbal varieties or green tea can help reduce your caffeine consumption, and it helps to be mindful of caffeine content in foods such as chocolate.
Foods high in fat and sugar
Cravings for processed and sugary foods may be heightened when you are feeling stressed, but it is important to avoid consuming these in high quantities. Not only can they play a hindrance on your overall health, but they can also make you feel worse in the long-term. Sugar for example will provide a short burst of energy and temporary relief from stressful feelings, but this will be swiftly followed by a 'low' period when your sugar levels crash. This can lead irritability and increased food cravings, which can put a lot of strain on the body.
Additionally, high consumption of processed fats can increase the risk of depression - according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Researchers found that people with diets high in processed fats had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate whole foods. Furthermore, processed foods contain high levels of hydrogenated or oxidised fats which can block the production of essential fats needed to protect the cell membrane and nerve health.
Many people turn to alcohol as a means of dealing with stress, but while it may have an instant calming effect on the body, in the long-term alcohol increases the amount of stress in people's lives. Drinking heavily can lead to complications such as addiction and can take a toll on overall health and well-being. Sleep problems, nervousness and skin irritations are common side effects of drinking, because alcohol makes the body release larger amounts of adrenaline and affects blood sugar levels.
Stress relieving foods to eat more of:
Fruit and vegetables
Eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables will ensure you get plenty of nutrients and minerals, which is crucial when your body is feeling stressed and using more nutrients than it would normally. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system and affect the body's defences - leaving a person more susceptible to infection and disease. If a stressed person falls ill, this will put the body under more strain. Aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to get a sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals, and focus on foods containing vitamins B, C and magnesium.
- B vitamins - Found in bananas, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, meat, fish and dairy products, these provide the body with energy after a period of stress.
- Vitamin C - The largest store of vitamin C lies in the adrenal glands, which are responsible for the production of stress hormones. Keep these healthy by eating plenty of vitamin C rich foods such as oranges, tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens and broccoli.
- Magnesium - This mineral can help to relax muscles and reduce anxiety, while also playing an essential role in hormone and energy production. Nuts - particularly Brazil nuts - are high in magnesium, as are beans and lentils, wholegrains and leafy greens.
Eating healthy snacks throughout the day, such as fruit, raw vegetables, yoghurt, nuts and seeds will keep your blood sugar levels stable and your metabolism functioning smoothly. On stressful days it is important to eat little and often to minimise peaks and drops in energy levels, and this includes eating a nutritious, filling breakfast in the morning. For some people, stress can make them skip or forget to eat their meals, and this increases the likelihood that they will reach for processed or sugary foods when they are hungry.
Eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, pasta and cereals, as well as oats and brown rice will help to enhance levels of serotonin - the mood-boosting hormone that helps you to feel happy and more relaxed. Low levels of serotonin in the body is linked to anxiety and depression, as well as poor quality sleep; so keeping this hormone in balance is key for dealing with stress. In addition, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly than refined, processed varieties, which can help stabilise blood sugars.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 and 6) are vital nutrients, which help the body to function effectively - particularly the brain. EFAs also help to moderate the effects of psychological and physical stress. This is because they lower the release of glucocorticoids (hormones released from the adrenal gland) under stressful conditions. To get the right balance of EFAs in your diet, eat oily fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Research into stress and diet shows that calcium may be able to help reduce certain symptoms, such as muscle tension and anxiety. Therefore, including plenty of calcium-rich foods in your diet (such as low-fat milk, yoghurt, sesame seeds, kelp, cheese, leafy greens and broccoli) may be beneficial. Eating these in the latter part of the day is thought to help with absorption.
How can a nutritionist help with stress and diet?
Seeing a registered health professional such as a nutritionist is essential if you want to make long-term positive changes to your diet in order to effectively manage stress. A nutritionist can provide tailored nutritional advice and support to ensure all your needs are catered for and your specific goals are met. This will involve an assessment to pinpoint your nutritional needs and what stress relieving foods will be the most beneficial for you. As part of your assessment, your will look at triggers and contributing factors, as well as any underlying imbalances such as adrenal hormones and thyroid problems. Following this, you will be given a specific diet plan to follow, which will also outline lifestyle changes such as physical activity, which will play an important role in stress management for the long-term.
Other ways of dealing with stress
Cut down on smoking
Smoking is very harmful to the body, but more so when you are stressed. Nicotine, like alcohol is a sedative, which in the short-term can have calming effects, but in the long-term can increase the risk of developing serious health conditions such as cancer, heart disease and breathing illnesses. These can all take their toll on the body.
Getting plenty of exercise is crucial for dealing with stress as it helps to keep the body functioning smoothly and triggers the release of 'happy hormones' known as endorphins. An increase of endorphins in the body leads to greater happiness and enhanced immune response, and can also help to modulate appetite. Furthermore, exercise is beneficial for relaxing tense muscles and tissues that can contribute to stress-related aches and pains.
Mindfulness and meditation are growing in popularity for their relaxation and stress-relieving benefits. Breathing exercises and physical activities such as yoga and pilates can also provide significant relief, while helping to improve overall health and well-being in the long-term.
Content reviewed by registered nutritionist Helen Moynihan. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.
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