Stress is quite simply a fact of life, we all experience it at some point. Any change, whether positive or negative, creates stress. A new house, a wedding, a baby – all seemingly positive events but they all bring an element of the unknown and, therefore, stress.
When our resources are not overly challenged, stress does not always have to be a bad thing. It can, in fact, lead to growth and development, to new ways of thinking.
The issue is when stress becomes overwhelming. This is when it begins to have a negative impact on our health.
The Vicious Cycle
Modern society is a major stress contributor. So many of us are working longer and harder whilst juggling the demands of a family. It is so easy to find yourself on a constant hamster wheel – eat, sleep, work, repeat. This, in turn, leads to unhealthy lifestyle habits. These unhealthy habits then create even more stress and it is just a vicious cycle.
You feel tired, over worked and under pressure so you reach for easy, convenient food. You rely on sugar and caffeine to get you through which ultimately means you are failing to fuel your body, and your mind, appropriately.
This way of ‘coping’ with stress ironically has the opposite, desired effect. It does not make us work faster or more efficiently; it actually leaves us lacking in energy and less productive. It can also lead to us feeling depressed, snappy and drained once we eventually do get home so our loved ones suffer.
Where is the quality of life?
Unhealthy Eating Habits
Do any of the following habits sound familiar?
- Drinking lots of coffee to keep going.
- Skipping meals even when hungry.
- Choosing the ‘wrong’ food because it is easy and quicker.
- Mindless snacking to make you feel ‘better’.
- Forgetting to drink fluid.
- Relying on processed, junk food in the evenings.
- Yo you or crash dieting because you are unhappy with your weight.
If you answered yes to one or more, the chances are that you are developing unhealthy eating habits as a result of stress. You are likely struggling to fit a balanced nutrition regime around your busy lifestyle.
The irony is that when you are suffering stress, you require a more nutrient dense diet. Yet, the only things that seems to appeal, or be available, are nutrient lacking, comfort foods.
Over a prolonged period of time, these habits can have a detrimental effect on your health, happiness and longevity.
To further complicate matters, many of us also reach for medications which can lead to further nutrient depletion.
Damaging Effects of Stress
Extreme stress drains our bodies of essential nutrients, even if we are sat at a desk all day. Our bodies respond by going in to flight or fight mode and both require large amounts of energy.
We also produce stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, in response to stress which, in excess, take their toll and leave us exhausted.
If stress is not taken care of, serious long term damage can be caused within various parts of the body.
Stress causes our muscles to tense up for prolonged periods of time. This can lead to headaches, even migraines, as well as neck, shoulder and head related issues.
Stress can make it very difficult to breathe sometimes as getting enough oxygen becomes problematic. This can lead to panic attacks and even anxiety.
Stress can seriously weaken the immune system leaving you wide open to illness and disease from which is becomes very difficult to recover.
Perhaps the most worrying side effect of acute stress is that it can cause chronic inflammation, especially in coronary arteries. It is this inflammation that leads to cardio vascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke and arterial disease. Cardio vascular disease is the main cause of death and disability in the UK yet there are things we can do with our diet and lifestyle to prevent it.
Stress and Water Retention
Aside from the fact that stress leads us to overeat, which subsequently leads to fat gain, it also creates water retention. As cortisol reacts with the aldosterone receptor, our bodies hold on to water and this can be very significant. This can cause extremely uncomfortable bloating and can mask a persons true weight.
It is also often why people who are rigidly sticking to a diet don’t see results on the scales; they are putting their body under so much stress and the subsequent increase in fluid can appear to negate weight loss.
Tips to Improve Your Nutrition When Stressed
The good news is that a healthy diet can actually counter the negative impacts of stress by improving our immune system, blood pressure and overall feelings of health and wellness.
Providing our overworked bodies with nutrient rich foods full of the vitamins and minerals they need to recover and thrive, can and should be your first line of defence in managing stress.
Here are my top recommendations that will work even for the busiest of people.
Include a variety of colours in your diet
We need to eat a wide variety of foods to achieve optimal health and avoid nutrient insufficiency. No single fruit or vegetable will provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need so it is not enough to eat 5 portions of broccoli each day!
Different colours provide different nutrients so for example, blue and purple fruits and vegetable are particularly high in antioxidants. Green ones tend to be high in potassium. Orange and yellow will provide vitamin C and white/cream tend to contain B vitamins.
It really does pay to ‘eat a rainbow’ so think about including different things in your lunch box instead of the same old carrot sticks. Raw broccoli, red peppers some blueberries….simple yet nutritious.
The importance of hydration cannot be overemphasised. Many people, in genera,l tend to be dehydrated and this is exasperated when stressed. Water helps our bodies to eradicate toxins and significantly improves our energy levels. It is also vital for a healthy functioning immune system so it becomes ever more important when our defences are low.
But how much is enough? The best way to gauge it is by checking your urine against the colour chart below:
Aim to always have some water with you and keep a bottle visible on your desk at all times. Try adding some sugar free squash if you struggle with plain water.
Consume enough protein
Not only is protein essential for a healthy functioning immune system, it also helps to keep us fuller for longer. This can be extremely useful when we are stressed and pushed for time. It is when we are hungry that we tend to crave the things we know we shouldn’t have so including high quality protein at each meal, including breakfast, can be a vital strategy to help keep you on track throughout the day.
Animal sources are the best option as they contain complete proteins for relatively few kcals. Things like lean meats, fish, whey protein, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt etc are great options.
There are, of course, plenty of good vegetarian and vegan options but you will need to be more mindful about making sure you are getting enough without compromising kcals.
Always carry a high protein snack with you to avoid temptation when rushing around. Things like protein bars, protein shakes, beef jerky, pots of Greek yogurt etc are great portable options.
Include a good balance of carbohydrates and fats
Following a low carbohydrate diet when stressed is never really a good idea and likewise with regards to fat.
Carbohydrates produce serotonin which helps us feel good and also helps us sleep. But this is not a license to fill up on cookies and cakes! Choose whole, unprocessed versions whenever possible to provide a slow release of energy that is nutritious too. Over night oats can be prepared the night before to grab on the go. Potatoes, rice, fruits and vegetables are other great sources that are easy to include and are readily available. You can microwave a potato easily at work and microwave rice is also a great option!
Adequate fat is also important. If you do not consume enough, your immune system and recovery hormones WILL suffer. This means you will generally feel weak and be susceptible to illness.
Furthermore, low fat diets usually mean more refined carbohydrates as studies show that we tend to compensate with these. This of course questions their efficacy when it comes to weight loss.
Aim for somewhere between 15-35% of your diet being made up of healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados etc. Snack pack nuts etc are so readily available, can be left in your bag forever and are a great energy boost.
Eat plenty of fibre
Studies have revealed that high fibre diets really can help to combat feelings of stress and depression. It helps to keep our guts happy which scientists reveal has a direct link to our brain.
Most of the UK only consumes 15g of fibre a day but it is recommended that we eat at least 30g for optimal health. Wholegrains, fruits, vegetables etc are great sources. Watch this short presentation for more ideas.
Take an Omega 3 Supplement
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that taking an Omega 3 supplement can have major benefits to our health and mental well-being. Not only can it help to alleviate the symptoms of depression, it helps to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, inflammation and therefore Cardio vascular disease which is a major risk when stressed.
The exact amounts required are person specific so if unsure, please feel free to contact me.
Avoid caffeine after 2pm
Caffeine has a half life of 4-6 hours. This means that if you consume it too late in the day, your sleep will likely suffer. It can be very difficult to sleep when stressed at the best of times, never mind when caffeinated to the max! Sleep is essential in helping our bodies rest and recover which you can read more about here.
The impact of stress on the human body is worrying, even more so given today’s fast paced society and abundance of readily available, overly processed foods.
This was brought to you by Rebecca Flannery, Evidence Based Nutrition Consultant