Do you find that in times of stress, your diet is one of the first things to suffer!
Contrary to what we might think, stress is normal and so is our body’s psychological and physical reaction to it! Indeed, research shows us that a small amount of stress can be good for us and gets us motivated to get stuff done. It improves memory (1), is beneficial to performance and motivation (2), and activates the immune system (3).
There are many causes of stress, from big life-changing events such as death or break-ups, to moving house or daily stressors such as sitting in traffic. For some of us, one thing might be causing us stress or for others, it might be a build-up of smaller pressures. Each of our reactions to stress will differ based on our genetics, our own circumstances, environment, and life experiences (4). So, it’s important to remember that we all react differently!
Prolonged stress impacts our health!
The challenge for many of us is, when stress is prolonged, it can impact our health in many ways, causing it to be compromised. Prolonged stress can lead to:
- Impaired memory – as cortisol has an inverse relationship with memory (5)
- Decrease in cognition – attention to detail, decision making, learning and judgement (6)
- Gastrointestinal disorders – IBS, dysbiosis and low-grade inflammation (7)
Increased risk of cardiovascular disease – adrenaline contributes to hypertension and atherosclerosis (8)
Suppressed immune function – overtime leads to a decrease to white blood cells and inhibits their function (3)
Long-term stress leads to “wear-and-tear” in the body, weakening our systems and increasing our susceptibility to disease. Therefore, it’s important that we are aware of these impacts and start to take steps to reduce where possible the source of stress.
Why we feel it in our gut!
The brain-gut connection is strong and stress as well as a variety of negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, depression, fear, and anger can all affect our digestive system.
Do you often lose your appetite during stressful times?
This is because cortisol can suppress our appetite, meaning we don’t feel hunger and our intake of food decreases. However, in cases of prolonged stress it can enhance the appetite, so many of us are hungrier and maybe eat more(9).
Do you crave certain foods?
The changes in our mood due to stress can alter our food choice, often causing us to reach for something to feel better (foods high in sugar or fat, alcohol, caffeine etc.,) (10). We may feel better after having these ‘comfort foods’, but they only contribute to our stress-induced craving for those foods.
When we are feeling stressed the feedback to the brain, via the gut-brain axis alters our ability to digest food. It can speed up or slow down the movements of food through our digestive system and the contents within it, leading to constipation or diarrhea. It can also make our digestive system sensitive to bloating and other pain signals, both of which can be very uncomfortable.
That’s why stress and strong emotions can contribute to or worsen a variety of GI conditions such as; inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and food allergies and sensitivities.
So why can eating well, help?
Evidence shows that good nutrition is just as important for our mental health as it is for our physical health and that a number of conditions, including depression, may be influenced by dietary factors(11).
Actively working to manage stress, will have a positive impact on our ability to support our mood and our motivation to practice more health supporting behaviours in our life.
Health supporting behaviours are things like; ensuring you have adequate sleep, nourishing yourself, finding movement you enjoy, managing your emotions, stress and relationships.
Nutritional support options
It can be difficult during this time to focus on food and often the last thing we need is something else to be challenged with, like eating well! An approach could be to think about increasing the foods that will nourish us and provide energy and nutrients to our bodies to sustain us for these times. So here are some simple reminders:
Add more colour by increasing the fruit and vegetables you consume and therefore increase your nutrient intake. For example – adding a handful of berries or sliced banana to our cereal, a salad to our lunch plate. When reaching for a snack, have some apples, oranges etc., at work to snack on when needed. These are also all higher in fibre and will provide some of the nutrients needed as well as support your gut health.
- Staying hydrated, have a litre bottle of water at your desk so that you are more likely to drink it, when it’s beside you. Even a very low level of dehydration can lead to increased fatigue!
- Trying to have a protein with each meal – plant or animal based. This will aid in keeping you fuller for longer and reduce the risk of your blood sugars dipping till your next break/meal. Often our cravings for sugar or caffeine fixes are due to cortisol impacting our blood sugar regulation. Try to aim for a regular eating pattern with 3 meals a day, to help maintain consistency.
- How many of us stand and hover while we eat, eat on the go, while we get another task done or just wolf it down because we have something else to do! It is important to take time to eat – think about it, and start engaging the mind and our digestive system. Try taking a few breaths before you start your meal, to help engage in mindful eating rather than mindless eating.
Maintaining balance and consistency is key, especially during those tim.es when we are experiencing more stress. While it’s not easy, eating well, staying well hydrated and frequent physical exercise can provide the support needed for your body
- McIntyre, C. K., & Roozendaal, B. (2007). 13, Adrenal Stress Hormones and Enhanced Memory for Emotionally Arousing Experiences. Neural plasticity and memory: from genes to brain imaging.
- McEwen BS. (2019) What Is the Confusion With Cortisol? Chronic Stress.
- Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic research, 58(2-3), 193-210.
- The Mental Health Foundation UK (2018). Stress.
- Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057.
- Arnsten, A. F. (2015). Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Nature neuroscience, 18(10), 1376.
- De Palma, G., Collins, S. M., Bercik, P., & Verdu, E. F. (2014). The microbiota–gut–brain axis in gastrointestinal disorders: stressed bugs, stressed brain or both?. The Journal of physiology, 592(14), 2989-2997.
- Lagraauw, H. M., Kuiper, J., & Bot, I. (2015). Acute and chronic psychological stress as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: Insights gained from epidemiological, clinical and experimental studies. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 50, 18-30.
- Harvard Health. 2021. Why stress causes people to overeat – Harvard Health. [online]
- Leigh Gibson, E., 2006. Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiology & Behavior, 89(1), pp.53-61.
- Gatineau M, Dent M (2011) Obesity and Mental Health. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory.