Author: Jenny Howe
“She eats because her boyfriend hurt her feelings, and food provides a small amount of comfort. He stares at his food – unable to eat – as he tries to figure out why the circumstances surrounding his girlfriend have suddenly become so bleak. She tries to eat away her pain. He just wants to sleep.
You seek chocolate, ice cream, cookies, and pastries; not just because they taste good; but because it is actually your body’s attempt to put a brake on the runaway machinery of stress.”
Welcome to the age of stress! National tragedies…the war on terrorism…an economic downswing… the day-to-day pressures of our jobs and families…most of us face considerable stress, and learning to deal with it is a vital skill. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a stress- free life. Any good stress management program will tell you that stress is a matter of individual perception. It is not an absolute, but a relative response to our environment. It is best defined by how we “choose” to react. Consequently, stress affects each of us in different ways and to different degrees.
Stress Affects Your Hormones
Say you are driving on the freeway, a car cuts you off and you instantly swerve out of the way to avert disaster. Afterwards you are frazzled, jumpy, and your heart feels like it might leap out of your chest. Your stress response triggers off high levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. (These are produced regardless of the type of stress experienced, from emergencies–an impending car accident, for example–to slower-acting stresses: pressure at work, traffic jams, or drinking coffee). Your body’s high level of adrenaline and cortisol relays the message throughout your body to mobilize a life-saving response. Your heart continues to pound; you become highly attentive and alert, even vigilant. Your blood vessels constrict and divert the flow of blood from leisurely processes such as digestion to fast-acting muscles. You may lose your appetite and not be able to eat normally. Your metabolism also shifts, as energy is made rapidly available to your muscles, readying them for action.
Stress Hormones Affect Your Nutrition
The “fight or flight” response of your body during stress disrupts its ability to remain in balance and continuously adjust and readjust its internal chemistry. If your body is physically unprepared, you can experience this response as very demanding and potentially debilitating.
Your ability to handle stress is largely dependent on antioxidants like vitamins C and E, B; plus the minerals magnesium and zinc. These healthful substances are also vital for immunity and nerve-cell activity. Stress hormones, however, use up significant amounts of these ingredients. The body’s defense against its emergency state takes priority over the nutrients’ normal functions: helping to prevent fatigue and depression, plus relieving muscle tension. This means, for example, that vitamin C, and zinc are not sufficiently available for collagen production to keep skin clear and to make white blood cells to fend off infections; B-vitamins are not fully available for energy production and mental function; while depleted magnesium will increase the likelihood of headaches and raised blood pressure. Increased stress levels also raise the amount of oxidation damage, which affects various body tissues. Additionally, constantly raised cortisol levels keep the body in a catabolic state, which interferes with tissue repair.
But such emergencies don’t last forever. Your stress response system has a built-in capacity to turn itself off. Cortisol has its own shut-off signal. When it reaches the brain, it commands the brain to cease the body’s production of this hormone.
Chronic stress is another story completely-the system does not turn off. As the situations that give rise to stress continue, they keep ramping up production of cortisol. You go into an inner “Code Red,” marked by anxiety, vigilance, hyper-alertness or depression.
Nutrition Becomes Malnutrition
The connection between nutrition and stress can be baffling. Left to your body’s own devices, the long-term trauma set off by chronic stress would deplete your nutrient reserves-you would not survive for very long. Consequently, other “nodes” of the long-term stress circuit are activated. One of them directs you to search for extremely pleasurable food, notably high-energy bundles of fat and sugar, like cream puffs and chocolate bars. They become “comfort foods” in every sense of the word. Fat and sugar-laden foods help your body build up reserves; thus allowing it to stay in the game of life.
You cannot always avoid pressure in your life; but knowing that your nutritional needs change when you experience anxiety, you can help your body “cope” by providing enough of the nutrients which are in greater demand or are more difficult to acquire when you are under pressure-for both the stress reaction AND for healthy tissue building. Think of reducing the negative effects of stress on the body as a nutritional shield to protect you against the slings and arrows that traumas throw at you.
Unfortunately, for many people, an automatic response to stress is food. Wise food choices are usually the last thing on your mind when you perceive trauma. Feeling tense? Reach for a cookie, not a carrot stick. We tend to choose “comfort” foods-those easily obtained and digested, sweet or flavorful. They give us a quick temporary lift, but are rarely the most nutritious. Cookies, and sugar-laden foods, can actually alter your mood. They set off emotional and chemical reactions in your body that can temporarily make you feel calm or powerful. When your stress meter goes up, food can have a calming affect, but only for a short time. Sugar will satisfy you in the short term; but after an hour or two, you may find that you have less energy and need more food.
It also brings on many problems, starting with excessive weight gain. Stress eating is often followed by painful self-judgment that can actually drive you to reach for more food. You feel guilty, mad at yourself, and believe something is wrong with you.
Many people also use caffeine to keep their energy up; when in reality, what they really need is rest. Too much caffeine will contribute to poor-quality sleep and add to the physiological effects of stress.
Digestion and Metabolism
Poor digestion during stress is the result of the “fight or flight” reaction generated by our response to stress. Digestion is given very little priority by the hierarchy of body functions during these circumstances. This results in fewer digestive enzymes, less HCL acid and poor blood supply to the gut. (The blood finds the brain and muscles to be more important during this period.) With poor digestion, even the best food choices will result in inadequate nutrients for the brain. If you don’t feed the brain, all of your stress management tools will be ignored, and you will tend to react at a “stimulus/response” level-a level below rational thought. The result-you respond with anger, fear, nervousness, and sleeplessness. depression, anxiety, and lethargy.
Another major consequence of poor digestion/poor absorption of nutrients, particularly proteins and essential fats, is faulty metabolism. Your body, in search of protein and fat, will proceed to use its own muscle tissue (instead of food) to provide energy for the brain and other vital functions. This can lead to deterioration of muscle tissue, including vital organs like the liver, heart, and kidneys. Have you witnessed or even experienced the “wasting away” look of someone under severe anxiety? The body physically deteriorates, and the immune system breaks down-leading to infections: flu, colds, pneumonia, viral invasions; and the inflammatory conditions of arthritis, asthma, and skin disorders.
Why is it difficult to eat normally when life attacks?
We don’t fully understand how stress causes some to take comfort in food and others to reject it. One factor, according to experts, is how our mind perceives certain events and how our body then responds. When we eat normally, nutrients enter our bloodstream and sends signals to our brain through various nerves and hormones. As our stomach fills with food, stretch receptors tell the brain “we’re full down here, better stop eating.” When nutrients are used up, other chemical messengers stimulate our appetite to seek food. However, we don’t always pay attention to these signals. Endorphins that send pleasure signals to the brain at the sight, smell or taste of food may trigger some to overeat during times of stress. Others may react to neuropeptide Y-a chemical in the brain that causes a craving for carbohydrates, sugars, and starches; and triggers the body to store fat.
A Balanced Diet
With a sensible approach to diet there, are ways of reducing the effects of stress and helping your body to remain healthy. Increase your resistance to the effects of stress by eating foods rich in stress-busting nutrients. Eat a balanced diet-one that supplies stress hormones with antioxidants to fend off oxidation damage, and keeps brain chemicals, such as serotonin, steady for improved moods. This diet should feature the following:
- Protein – With the increase in calories comes a corresponding increase in protein requirements. Part of this is due to the increased secretion of cortisol, which converts protein to carbohydrate to feed the brain. Lean meats such as fish, skinless chicken or turkey meat, game or red meat with all the fat cut off; or vegetarian protein sources such as eggs, yogurt, cheese, soy-based foods, nuts, and seeds, are all excellent protein sources; plus they also contain the stress-busting nutrient zinc.
- Anti-oxidants – Stress-related tissues such as the adrenal and pituitary glands show depletion of anti-oxidants during stress. Consequently, a cycle develops whereby stress depletes the anti-oxidants, which in turn reduces the body’s resistance to infection and disease, and increases the likelihood of further stress. This self-perpetuating spiral continues until dietary intervention reverses the cycle. Vitamins A (or beta carotene), C and E; plus selenium are all important in maintaining a healthy immune system. All fruit and vegetables, especially citrus fruit, strawberries, blackberries, kiwi, cabbage and broccoli contain Vitamins A, C, and E. Eat at least five portions of these daily. A portion is 3 oz; for example, one apple, twp plums, three dried apricots, 1/2 cup chopped vegetables, 1/2 cup beans or pulses, 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable juice.
- B Vitamins – Deficiency in these vitamins is considered to be responsible for the typical stress symptoms of irritability, lethargy and depression. There are eight recognized B vitamins that all play a role in the extraction of energy from food and maintenance of the nervous system. All whole grains such as whole-meal bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, rye, porridge oats and jacket potatoes, or unusual grains such as quinoa, buckwheat or whole-wheat couscous; plus yeast extract, yogurt, liver, dates, molasses, pumpkin, beans, avocado contain essential B vitamins. These complex carbohydrates can also help to raise serotonin levels. Under stress our brain uses serotonin. When our stores of serotonin become low due to extended stress, our mood can become affected and become less positive, or even accompanied with anxiety and depression.
- Calcium & Magnesium – These two minerals work together and are required for every nerve impulse and muscle contraction in the body. Evidence shows an elevated loss of these nutrients during stress. Low calcium accounts for weakened muscles and muscle spasms. Low magnesium increases the secretion of stress hormones, which in turn aggravates the stress responses. Deficiencies in both result in an inability to relax and increased sensitivity to noise. Dark green leafy vegetables, grapefruit, figs, sweet corn, seeds and nuts, eggplant, raisins, carrots, and tomatoes are rich in magnesium; dairy products such as milk, yogurt, low-fat cheese, and cottage cheese are excellent sources of calcium.
- Essential fatty acids (lecithin, GLA, Flax oil etc) – Healthy fats from virgin olive oil, cold pressed walnut, sesame, sunflower or safflower oils, unsalted nuts and seeds, avocado
- Calories – Under severe physical stress, such as burns, trauma, fever or surgery requirements increase by 50% or more.
Foods to Avoid
- Caffeine – Caffeine raises stress hormones and can lead to insomnia. It is found in coffee, tea, colas, the herb guarana, and pain medication. This does not mean you should abstain all the time; just be aware of the effects caffeine can have and minimize your consumption of coffee, tea, and sodas at stressful times in your life. Replace with caffeine-free coffee or tea, sparkling water with juice, fruit and herb teas.
- Sugar – Sugar is devoid of vitamins and minerals and also uses up nutrients such as B-vitamins.
- Eat fewer simple carbohydrates – table sugar, corn syrup, soda pop, fruit juice, candy, cake, bread, pasta, and baked items made with white flour, most packaged cereals. Replace with a little raw honey, pur√©ed sweet fruit, dates, bread, pasta, and baked goods made with whole-grain flour, whole-grain cereal.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is a depressant and is dehydrating. Stick to a maximum of 7 units weekly for women and 14 units weekly for men. Drink a large glass of water with each alcoholic drink.
- Nicotine – Cigarettes use up anti-oxidants. Give up smoking or at least eat extra fruit and vegetables.
Herbs-Nature’s Little Helpers
Ideally, you should be able to get all you need from a well-balanced diet. However, you may want to add an anti-oxidant-formulated supplement to your regime during times of stress. There are also some herbal supplements that can help to counteract stress:
- Siberian Ginseng and Panax Ginseng help strengthen and tone the adrenal glands. These herbs help the body adapt to stressors.
- Licorice Root balances stress hormones. Some formulae include ginseng.
- Kava Kava has an anxiety reducing, calming effect and is good for migraines.
- St. John’s Wort – nicknamed the herbal valium. St John’s Wort is effective in trials for moderate depression. It works by help to improve serotonin levels in the brain.
- Other herbs that are wonderful in tea form include passionflower, cauliflower, and valerian root. Sipping chamomile tea about 1/2 hour before bed is a nice and calming ritual.
All these supplements can be found singly, together, or in combination with other stress-fighting herbs and nutrients. One note of caution – The FDA has recently issued warnings on kava due to its adverse effects on the liver.
We haven’t touched here on the variety of other tools available if you are feeling stressed. Research strongly supports integrating meditation, visualization, yoga and biofeedback as potential techniques to help decrease your stress. Be sure to speak to your doctor to determine whether or not you are a candidate for any of these natural therapies.
Many people try to enhance their image by talking about their busy lives. Whenever I ask my friend Bruce, “How’s it going?,” I always get the answer, “Busy, busy, busy… never enough hours in the day.” Needless to say, my friend’s relentless schedule has started to take a toll on his body. A 46-year-old single father, he has a demanding job at a southern California architect studio. At home, he finds it impossible to relax because “things will fall apart if I don’t do something about them NOW.”
Lately Bruce has been suffering from stomach aches and migraine headaches. He also has trouble sleeping. “Stress has, unfortunately, become a way of life,” he says. “I want to live long but fear my stress is going to create an illness later on.” Bruce’s fears are not exaggerated. He is physically upset by the adverse conditions of his overbooked schedule and cannot escape the effects of the pressures he puts upon himself. He is a prime candidate for ulcers, high blood pressure, and heartburn. Stress is also the main culprit of his insomnia. How many times have you been unable to sleep because your mind is forever thinking about the items on your “To Do” list, or about the conflicts you are having with your work supervisor? Besides sleepless nights, chronic stress may also cause problems with Bruce’s metabolism, indigestion, and could decrease his sex drive. He could also develop an addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, or food, as a way of coping from the strain of being “so swamped.” Sound familiar?
The Physiology of Stress
Studies have linked stress to the body’s ability to resist pathogens, leaving people more vulnerable to infections, cancer, and a weakened immune system. Stress depletes the flow of oxygen, which cells need for maintenance and health. The term psychophysiology describes the body’s physiological response to a perceived stressor, meaning the stress response is a mind-body phenomenon. Every human being is born with a survival mechanism called the “flight/fight” response, a reaction to fear and surprise. This could be anything from waking up to a fire in your room, anticipating a deadline at work, to hearing your alarm clock ring in the morning.
Physical responses to such stress can include any of the following symptoms:
- The heart beats rapidly or irregularly. An increase in heart rate pumps blood around the body to get oxygen and sugars to the cells that are used for the body’s survival.
- The body releases stress hormones. Adrenal glands release adrenaline, also called epinephrine. This hormone helps maintain increased heart rates and prompts the liver to release stored sugar as energy to the body. Also, when a person feels angry, the body releases noradrenalin, which for most people, will raise blood pressure and cause panic or anxiety.
- Muscles used to “fight or flight” become very tight. Common everyday expressions are “feeling uptight,” “backache,” and “pain in the neck.” We complain of tension headaches, a tight jaw, neck tension, back pain, insomnia, fatigue, and loss of concentration.
- During the body’s “fight” for survival, blood is directed toward the brain and major muscles groups (legs can suddenly run fast in an attempt to flee danger), away from the skin’s surface in the hands and feet, and away from the digestive and reproductive organs. During stressful periods, many people skip meals (“I’m too busy to eat”) and experience a lower sex drive. This is because during survival it is not a priority for the body to digest food or reproduce. Many working couples with children report a decrease in sexual intimacy during periods of intense hardship and anxiety.
- Survival vigilance ignites heightened senses. The body is more sensitive to noise, such as ringing doorbells and telephones, light, smell, and touch. The thinking part of the brain, the neo-cortex, shuts down, and the survival mechanisms in the mid-to-lower, more primitive parts of your brain, take over. The body reacts to situations rapidly, sometimes neglecting to think problems through clearly. A person becomes irritable, anxious, depressed. He acts disparately and makes poor impulsive decisions. Couples in the midst of a quarrel say mean things to each other that they later regret. The basic emotions of fear, anger, sadness, and even joy (in the form of nervous laughter) take over the complicated, sophisticated higher-thinking, intellectual emotions.
- The body perspires and sweats to cool down its increased metabolism. This stress response is called hyperhidrosis. Excessive sweating causes dehydration. This is why it is vital that you drink more water when you perspire.
- Longer term, unresolved stress can affect the immune system that normally fights infections and promotes healing. Symptoms include frequent colds or flues, infections, cancer or tumor development, increased allergic responses, and auto-immune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma.
Put a Lid on Stress
Simplify your life. Many of us are caught in a time crunch. The solution, set priorities. Decide what needs to be done and delete the rest. Quality time with your kids is really important. Whether the cookies for your child’s class are really homemade is not such a big deal. Enroll your son in only one team sport per season; he doesn’t need to be a member of a soccer, a basketball, and a hockey team all at once. Streamlining your children’s activities will create less stress for all of you.
A lot of people need to learn time management. Rearranging your schedule in a way that will cause less stress can be quite rewarding. Look at your schedule. There will be several items that can be rearranged to make better time. By combining items on your calendar and taking off the nonessentials, you can give yourself a good 30-60 minutes of free time every day. Avoid impulse buying by going to the grocery store once a week with a list, instead of several times per week – when you suddenly realize you do not have the ingredients for that dinner casserole.
- Take time out for yourself. People today are in a constant frenzy. Between work and family there is little time to pamper you. If you do not take care of yourself, your body slacks. By not having good mental health, your body’s immune system weakens, headaches are common, and human relationships seem impossible. How can you possibly relate to one another when your stress level is at an all-time high?
- Get connected with friends. Making deep emotional connections with friends and family reduces stress, creates more happiness, and actually keeps everyone healthier. Isolation hurts us and connections heal us through the same physical mechanisms as exercise and a healthy diet. Blood vessels are measurably more elastic in “connected people”, the heart’s ability to respond to extraordinary demands is higher, cardiac inflammatory protein levels are lower, and blood pressure response to exercise is better. Connected people’s stress-hormone blood profiles are also measurably healthier than those of isolated people.
- Eat a good diet. A good diet also helps in stress management. You should prepare foods that are rich in vitamins and flavonoids. Your soul will thrive on foods that help promote sleep: oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, and breads. The optimal diet should also be free of caffeine, chocolate, tea, and alcohol. A vitamin B complex can help the nervous system function, reduce anxiety and immune system damage, and improve brain function. Other nutrients like calcium and magnesium can also promote good sleep. The mineral zinc will help to prevent hair loss and strengthen the roots. It also heals wounds, promotes healthy skin, and boosts immune function.
- Meditate. Taking time out to relax, reflect, and contemplate is perhaps the best possible way to reduce stress. Yoga is one of the most successful forms of mediation and exercise, especially in a short period of time.
- Exercise. Physical activity has the ability to relax both your mind and body. A big advantage of exercise is that it forces you to get out and maintain some balance. If you are working a lot and having a hard time getting other things done, try getting out for a walk every day at lunch time. This will allow you to clear your head and be more focused on your work. It will also allow you to relax, spend some time with nature, and remind you that physical wellness has a huge impact on mental wellness.
- Reward yourself. Too often we get into patterns where we work too much, sleep too little, and run our body into the ground. Take breaks daily, weekly, monthly. Take a weekend getaway to freshen your mind from work. Take a yearly trip to experience something different from the 9-5 grind back home.
- Listen to music. Nature tapes are great to put your mind at ease. The human body needs only 20 minutes of relaxation a day to rejuvenate, and music can fill those 20 minutes with bliss. A lot of people enjoy sipping on herbal tea while listening to relaxing music. With the music on, take a hot bath with some cleansing bath salts or bath beads, light some candles, and read a good book.
Principles to Remember for a Stress-free, Healthy Lifestyle:
- Balance – A balanced life is very important to maintain limited stress. Balance means setting priorities, delegating, and streamlining. It does not mean trying to do too many things at once. A balanced lifestyle leaves room for work, family, friends, a healthy diet, exercise, and hobbies.
- Planning – Failing to plan is a plan to fail. Unplanned situations inevitably cause an element of stress. Unknowns cause us to worry. It is better to take a little time to plan rather than to encounter unexplained situations.
- Values – Take a moment to think about the things that are most important to you in your life. When we are living off the wall and not by our values, there is an increase of stress in our days.
Take care of yourself, people count on you on a daily basis. You need to be in optimal physical and mental health in order to perform your best.