It’s easy to ignore stress, accept it as normal or not even be aware of it. Yet of all the factors that impact health, it’s one of the most significant. In this article I will explain how stress affects your hormone balance and other body systems. Then I will give you some tips on how diet and nutrition can help with stress management.
First of all, it is important to understand a wider definition of stress. Whilst life events such as divorce, bereavement or moving house are obvious stressful events, stress is actually any stimulus that triggers the nervous system to activate a “fight or flight” response. This trigger can be physical, mental, psychological, or emotional. This means your thoughts and feelings produce as much stress as an actual threat.
Anxiety, worry, negative thinking, low self esteem, being trapped in an unhappy relationship or unfulfilling job are all stressors. This kind of stress can go unnoticed because it becomes a habitual way of living.
Another source of chronic stress can come from your diet. For example frequent consumption of stimulant foods such as sugar or caffeine or regularly eating foods that you are unknowingly intolerant to will put stress on your body.
It would be impossible to live a totally stress free life and if the body adapts efficiently to stress, balance (homeostasis) is restored without undue damage. Good nutrition plays a vital role in this restoration of balance and in the prevention of stress associated health problems.
What happens when we are stressed?
The human body has an amazing in-built physiological stress response. When we are faced with a stressor, the brain activates the sympathetic division of the nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight response). Adrenaline and noradrenaline are discharged from the adrenal glands to enable immediate physical action. Cortisol is also released from the adrenal glands.
The stress response is a normal and helpful response as it keeps us alert and ready to deal with the threat. We start sweating, blood pressure and heart beat increase, muscles tense in anticipation of danger, digestion slows down to conserve energy, fat and sugar stores are mobilised. In short we are perfectly prepared in a state of emergency to cope with the threat.
The problem comes when instead of being shortlived, the threat is ongoing and constant. If you are frequently in the stress response and your body is being run by the sympathetic nervous system, it is like repeatedly accelerating too hard in your car, which will reduce its life span. Healing cannot take place during the stress response. The body needs to be in parasympathetic nervous system mode which is the relaxation response, in order for the natural healing and repair mechanisms to work.
8 ways stress affects your wellbeing
- Irritability, low mood, anxiety, insomnia or sleeping too much, a short fuse, feeling overwhelmed, poor memory and concentration, palpitations, sugar or salt cravings, feeling cold, aches and pains, headaches, frequent infections, weight gain or weight loss are all warning signs of stress. Funnily enough they can all be symptoms of the peri menopause as well!
- Stress affects your hormones in many ways. Here is one example; the stress hormone, cortisol blocks the way progesterone is used in the body, leading to imbalanced oestrogen and progesterone and menstrual cycle irregularities.
- Digestive enzyme secretion is affected by stress, leading to bloating, gas and food intolerances. Cortisol thins the stomach lining, making it weak and vulnerable to ulceration.
- The immune system is particularly adversely affected by stress. Bacterial or viral infections are more likely. Stress plays a major role in the onset and course of auto immune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroiditis and in cancer
- Cholesterol production will increase under stress because cholesterol is the raw material for making stress hormones. Cholesterol will test high after stressful events such as surgery.
- Stress produces a high amount of free radicals which cause oxidative damage, implicated in premature ageing and chronic disease such as heart disease.
- Other physical conditions which stress underlies are allergies, asthma, hayfever, ulcers, nervous system disorders and cardiovascular issues.
- Finally stress leads to fatigue and burnout.
- Stress can lead to imbalanced blood sugar levels. Protein has a stabilising effect on blood sugar balance. Ensure you are eating enough good quality protein such as fish, poultry, eggs, cheese. If you are vegan, consider adding a protein powder to your diet.
- Minimise sugar and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol.
- Identify any food intolerances with the help of a nutritional therapist and possibly do an intolerance test run by a reputable testing laboratory. Stop eating the offending foods for a temporary time period. It’s important to make sure your diet is balanced if you start cutting out foods.
- Check your cortisol levels over a 24 hour period with a home saliva test. Work one to one with a nutrition practitioner to do this test.
- When the body is under stress, demand for all nutrients increases and any deficiencies make the body less able to cope with the stress. B vitamins are particularly important in this respect. Vitamin B5 is needed for making the stress hormone cortisol and, together with vitamin C, is found in higher concentrations in adrenal (stress gland) tissue than any other body tissue. Vitamin B12 is needed for making adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone which is discharged in response to a stressor. B12 often becomes deficient under stress because it is dependent on the healthy function of the stomach lining (compromised by cortisol) for absorption. Vitamin B6 is required for making a calming neurotransmitter called GABA and for formation of other neurotransmitters, seratonin, dopamine and adrenalin. Food sources of B complex are meat, fish, eggs, cheese, wholegrains, nuts. If taking a supplement, it’s important to get the active forms of the B vitamins.
- Magnesium and omega fats are two other key stress nutrients and you may need to top up your levels with a few good quality supplements of these nutrients for a temporary period of time, ideally under the guidance of a nutrition practitioner.
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