Stress, Nutrition and Diet
When we encounter something stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to help us think more clearly and be ready for a physical response – should it be required. This is a basic instinct that we have evolved to help us cope with potentially dangerous situations and is known as the “fight or flight” response.
However in modern life we can become stressed for many reasons other than impending danger and yet our bodies’ reaction is the same. With their pre-determined instincts, our bodies’ still prepare our minds in this instinctive way and give less priority to other, less urgent, functions. Digestion is one such function that is given a lower priority during stressful situations, this is not good as poor digestion can make us feel unwell and this in turn can be a source of stress.
Chronic (long term) stress has been linked to the tendency of the body to store fat around the middle (stomach).
Poor stress-management, for some people, is perhaps the most significant barrier to weight loss.
Being aware of how your body works and deals with stress can help you to manage stress and stressful situations. After a stressful period the human body can go into a ‘recovery mode’ where increased appetite and food cravings become more prevalent. At the same time metabolic rates drop to conserve energy. Being aware of these patterns can help you manage your stress levels and through nutrition and diet you can help your body recover from stressful periods more rapidly and minimise negative effects such as weight gain.
Tips for Reducing Stress Through Diet
On Stressful Days, Eat Little and Often
This will keep your metabolism ticking over all day and you will minimise peaks and troughs in energy levels. Eat breakfast, even though you may not feel hungry or believe you do not have enough time. Eating breakfast helps to kick start your metabolism for the day and also helps to stabilise your blood sugar level which will in turn reduce stress. Choose fruit or fruit juice and a whole-grain cereal for maximum benefits.
Eat Well Throughout the Day
Make sure you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day and focus on foods containing Vitamins B and C, and Magnesium:
- B Vitamins can help you feel more energetic after a stressful episode. Bananas, leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, seeds and also meat, fish and dairy products all contain essential B vitamins.
- Vitamin C – The adrenal glands contain the largest store of vitamin C in the body and are important in the production of stress hormones. Eat citrus fruit such as oranges, tomatoes, peppers, kiwi fruit, leafy green vegetables, broccoli and other foods rich in Vitamin C.
- Magnesium – Can help to relax muscles and reduce anxiety. Increase your magnesium intake by eating nuts, especially Brazil nuts, but also hazelnuts and peanuts. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, especially oats, brown rice and beans are also good sources of magnesium. You can also take a relaxing bath with a good handful of Epsom salts (available at your pharmacist) as these contain magnesium that can be absorbed through your skin.
See our pages: Vitamins and Dietary Minerals for more detailed information about vitamins and minerals.
As well as trying to maximise your intake of certain foodstuffs, you should also be aware of the negative effects of others and therefore try to minimise them.
Caffeine is found mostly in coffee, tea, some soft drinks and chocolate, can have negative effects on the body if taken in high quantities. Try to wean yourself off caffeine by substituting coffee or tea with decaffeinated versions, herbal tea, or green tea (which is also full of antioxidants). Substitute sugary and caffeinated soft drinks with sparkling water or (preferably diluted) fruit juice and you will reduce your caffeine and sugar intake. Since caffeine can stay in your body for six hours or more, avoid all caffeinated drinks after lunchtime and you will sleep better. Getting adequate sleep is an important factor in reducing stress levels.
Alcohol, Sugar, Salt and Nicotine
You should aim to reduce your intake of alcohol, sugar and salt. Consumption of these items are all known to strip the body of essential nutrients and undo the work of a healthier diet. Stop smoking! Although reaching for a cigarette may feel like instant stress relief it actually causes greater stress over time.
By watching our diet, increasing our intake of stress-busting nutrients and limiting our intake of stress-inducing substances we can feel better about ourselves and our well-being, as well as give our bodies the chance to cope with, and recover from, stressful situations.
Other Stress-Busting Techniques:
Even some gentle exercise can help reduce stress levels and combined with a healthier diet will probably lead to weight loss. Yoga and tai chi are particularly good, as is swimming. Take time to relax. Breathing exercises, meditation and yoga will all help reduce stress.
See our page: The Importance of Exercise for more information.
Take time out to relax. You may feel as though you have to force yourself to relax if you are not used to it but it is worth the effort. Learning to relax can help you manage your stress more effectively.
See our section: Relaxation Techniques for more information.
Make sure you get sufficient and quality sleep. Eating healthier and avoiding excessive caffeine will help you sleep well and for longer periods.
See our pages: What is Sleep? and How to Sleep | The Importance of Sleep for more information. You can assess your levels of daytime sleepiness with the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.
Spend time with friends and family, talk to them about problems you are having and find time to laugh together. Simply talking and interacting with others can help relieve stress and boost self-esteem.
See our: Improving Self-Esteem page for more information.
If you are experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time, or are at all worried about how stress is affecting you, then seek help. See your doctor who may recommend a counsellor or some alternative stress relief techniques such as massage, acupuncture or alternative medicine.
You may find our page: What is Counselling? useful.
If you are experiencing stress in your workplace, speak to your line manager or human resources department.
Also see our page: Workplace Stress.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life
Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.