The World Health Organisation estimates that upwards of 70% of doctors’ visits are for stress-related issues. Stress is considered to be directly or indirectly responsible for many diseases of the cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, and respiratory systems.
When good stress goes bad
Stress can be both positive and negative i.e. distress (negative) or eustress (positive). Positive stress can increase brain power, get you in ‘the zone’ and enhance performance and productivity. However, even small amounts of consistent distress can cause the endocrine system to malfunction by raising our cortisol (or stress hormone) to such an extent, the adrenal glands lose the ability to function correctly. Adrenal hormones are the major response of the body to stress or trauma from outside sources or within. Prolonged elevations in cortisol can promote fat storage, increase blood pressure, suppress the immune system, and contribute to anxiety or depression. Chronic stress can therefore affect every part of our body in a variety of ways. To further exacerbate the problem, stress can also have a profound impact on sleep by disrupting our circadian rhythm. If sleep deprivation becomes chronic, apart from the obvious fatigue, it can cause inflammation and increase blood glucose, sometimes to diabetic or pre-diabetic levels.
Individuals have different thresholds of stress resilience and stress tolerance but in our society, it is nearly impossible to live a stress-free life. Much of the Eastern population believe that meditation and other practices such as Qgong, Tai Chi and yoga are the key to optimum health. Unfortunately, in the Western world we tend to use negative coping mechanisms to deal with stress such as alcohol, drugs and other excessive tendencies which only exacerbate the problem.
What role does nutrition play?
We cannot avoid all stress in our lives but what we eat can support our coping mechanisms. In addition, poor nutrition can also be classified as a type of ‘stress’ on the body. Regular sugar intake can stress the adrenal glands, excess caffeine or skipping meals can increase cortisol levels and excess salt can increase blood pressure. Similarly, food sensitivities, allergens or chemicals, infections, yeasts or parasites and toxic overload can also stress the body.
So how do we reduce stress? This is far easier said than done but here are a few tips that can help both physically, mentally, and nutritionally:
- Eat a whole food diet and rid yourself of processed foods, hydrogenated oils and high levels of sugary foods and drinks all of which contribute to a diet which is high in calories but low in nutrients. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables (all the colours) and plenty of healthy fats, i.e. oily fish, nut and seeds, avocados, and good quality olive oil.
- Exercise! Moderate exercise has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol. In addition, physical activity helps to bump up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters or endorphins. It improves your mood, self-confidence and over all sense of wellbeing.
- Sleep is vital to wellbeing and stress management. Anything can seem more challenging without a good night’s sleep under your belt. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, exercise can also help promote deeper, more restorative sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene, limit screen time before bed and try a relaxing bath or some chamomile tea. A supplement like magnesium can also be helpful in improving sleep patterns.
- Organisation and planning as boring as they sound, can be invaluable tools for streamlining your hectic daily routine and reducing life’s daily stresses. Meal planning, sharing school runs, making lists, preparing lunches and uniforms the night before, batch cooking, delegating less important tasks and, finally, accepting that everything does not have to be perfect.
Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love, or exercise –It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it – Dr. Hans Selye, Endocrinologist
Lynne Dalton, Glenville Nutrition Ireland