How to manage the impact of stress with your nutrition!
Stress is a normal part of life and our body’s reaction can be through physical, mental and/or emotional changes. Stress has many causes, and it creeps into our lives from many directions including our work. However, our reactions and its impact will differ based on our genetics, our own circumstances, our environment, and life experiences.
Research has shown that even moderate amounts of stress can be good for us helping us to perform better at work by;
“Improving our memory(1), benefiting our performance and motivation (2) as well as activating the immune system(3)”
However, prolonged periods of stress can be problematic for our health. We may notice symptoms like food cravings, chest pains, insomnia, weight gain, memory impairment, cognition decrease, IBS (4,5,6). Symptoms that we may be less aware of include; an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (high BP and cholesterol) and suppression of our immune function(7,8).
According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) , an estimated 17 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety or depression in 2020/21. In Ireland, a 2022 CIPD Health and wellbeing at work survey report, showed that stress continues to be one of the main causes of short and long-term absence. 79% of respondents reported some stress-related absence over the last year. Only 52% of respondents believe that their organisation is effective at managing work-related stress (9).
Stress can impact the foods we want to eat!
How and what we eat is influenced by so many factors including stress. Indeed it can have an effect on our eating patterns, altering our overall food intake in two ways, through under or overeating. When we feel stressed, our appetite can increase with a preference for “comfort foods” those that are high in fat and sugar. These high-fat and sugary foods that we crave can stimulate the reward pathways in the brain, and withdrawal from these foods often results in increased cravings for them.
Increased blood sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance, resulting in adipose tissue redistributing to the abdominal region leading to weight gain (10). Some may even skip meals or forget to eat resulting in weight loss, this is because the specific types of stressors may influence our eating behaviours differently (11).
How the foods we eat affect how we feel? Do you feel it in your gut?
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. It can be difficult during times of stress to focus on food and often the last thing we need is something else to be challenged with, like eating well!
So here are some easy tips for increasing the foods that will nourish, provide energy and nutrients to our bodies to sustain us for these times:
1. Be mindful of what you eat and drink and how it can impact your blood glucose levels. Try to aim for a regular eating pattern with 3 meals a day, to help maintain energy levels, and consistent blood sugar levels and decrease tiredness and irritability.
2. Complex carbohydrates provide slow-release energy which will aid in keeping you fuller for longer and reduce the risk of your blood sugars dipping till your next break/meal. Wholegrain bread, pasta and cereals as well as oats and brown rice will help release the mood-boosting hormone – serotonin which will help you feel more relaxed.
3. Try to have a protein with each meal and snack – as it contains Tryptophan a precursor to Serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate appetite, mood and sleep). Research suggests that consuming it may help with depression. Good sources include eggs, poultry, meat, fish and cheese. Note these are best consumed with a carbohydrate food. Eating protein can also help prevent overeating.
4. Staying hydrated, have a large glass or 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!
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 during this time.
Do you feel it in your gut?
What we eat has an influence on our brain structure and function and indeed our mood. Through the “gut-brain-axis”, the trillions of bacteria that reside in our gut determine how well we absorb nutrients from our foods, limit inflammation, activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain and determine how much serotonin is produced.
Incredibly, alterations in the microbiota, can also modulate our response to stress and increase our anxiety! Therefore, taking steps to ensure our gut is as healthy as possible is recommended and some of the best ways are:
*Eating 30+ plant types per week rich in fibre is linked to the production of short-chain fatty acids which supports the gut’s bacterial diversity and enhances the barrier strength of the gut.
*Eating a rainbow ensures variety in the colour of plants providing vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals needed by the gut bacteria to thrive.
*Reducing foods that are highly processed and high in sugar, salt and artificial sweeteners as they disrupt the healthy bacteria in the gut.
*Regularly add foods that are rich in probiotics like natural bio-live yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut and pickles which support the growth of healthy bacteria.
More colour = more variety = more nutrients!
Our first priority should always try to reduce the causes the stress in the first place, though recognising that this is not always possible. Engaging in destressing activities is always helpful taking our body out of the “flight or flight” mode into a “rest and digest” one. We also need to acknowledge that stress is part of life and that learning how we respond to it is the key to helping reduce the impact of persistent stress, we previously wrote about how to embrace stress and create positive results in your life.
Nevertheless, maintaining balance and consistency are key, especially in times of stress. While we appreciate its often not easy, eating well, staying well hydrated and frequent physical exercise can provide the support needed to combat the impact of stress.