Stressed? How nutrition and lifestyle strategies may have a positive impact
When was the last time you felt stressed?
If it was recently then you’re not alone. According to the Huffington Post, 59% of British adults say that they find their lives are more stressful than five years ago. A survey of 2,050 adults carried out by Mind, the mental health charity, found that one in five working people take time off for stress and one in 10 have sought professional help to deal with stress. It has become of such importance that October 10th is now designated World Mental Health Awareness Day, which is generating a social media conversation about the effects of stress, anxiety, depression and related disorders with the aim of making it easier to talk about.
Stress is an unavoidable part of modern life, but it can have a damaging impact on emotional, mental and physical health, and is a major cause of absenteeism. This should be enough to guarantee its prominence on the list of concerns for HR managers.
Modern man, ancient bodies
Our in-built ‘fight or flight’ mechanism was key to our survival thousands of years ago; however, we still trigger the same stress response when faced with challenges today. Nowadays, high-carb, stimulant-loaded diets also contribute to the burden of stress, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and thyroid function, lowered immunity, blood sugar imbalance, sugar cravings, and weight gain (especially around the abdomen, negatively affecting heart health). Over time stress can also accelerate the ageing process and increase the risk of physical and mental illness.
So how can we become more resilient to stress? A three-pronged approach seems to work best, incorporating: a nutrient-dense diet, good sleep and a positive mindset.
What we can do
Firstly, eating the right foods and boosting the intake of certain nutrients can help increase energy reserves so you feel better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. Some helpful examples include:
- Green tea. This healthy drink contains an amino acid L-theanine which has a relaxing effect on the body.
- Leafy green vegetables. Including popular options such as kale and spinach, a great source of magnesium which is often rapidly depleted during times of stress, and if sleep is a struggle it may be particularly valuable it aids relaxation.
To help regulate blood sugar and consequently, your mood, avoid missing meals and eat foods containing protein and slow-releasing carbohydrates in every meal and snack. Some examples include:
- Eggs or smoked salmon with wholegrain bread for breakfast.
- Meat, fish or pulses with grains for lunch.
- Reducing your dependence on stimulants – i.e. coffee, tea, colas, energy drinks and cigarettes. Rather than giving you energy, these deplete energy over time and contribute to blood sugar imbalances.
Secondly, promote good sleep. Aim to establish a relaxing bedtime routine, such as having a warm bath with Epsom salts and lavender oil or listening to relaxing music to reduce your stress levels and get your body into a calm state. It may be beneficial to avoid alcohol before bed and limit any caffeine intake after midday. Ensuring the bedroom is quiet and dark, and turning off mobile phones and wi-fi connections may also help with getting a good night’s sleep.
Thirdly, it impossible to remove all stressors from our lives, so it is important that we learn to deal with stress more proactively. There are many ways to manage our stress response. Groups, books and apps, for example, can be used to learn and use techniques i.e. yoga, mindfulness and meditation. These may improve mood, and support us biochemically to reduce the symptoms associated with feelings of stress.
In summary, try to eat a diet containing vegetables, whole grains, lean protein/plant protein, ‘healthy fats’ and fermented foods, stay active, incorporate stress management time into a daily routine, and try to get adequate sleep. Remember that every part of the body including the brain functions better when supported by a nutrient-dense diet and healthy living strategies.
Though it may seem difficult to implement these lifestyle changes if you do not currently practice them, remember that slowly changing your diet and habits is better for your mental and physical health than not making these changes, and they will contribute greatly to the reduction of stress in your life – which is always a good thing!
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