The importance of eating well during times of stress

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Stress can be a normal part of life

Stress is a normal part of life and the body’s reaction can be through physical, mental and/or emotional changes. There are many causes of stress, indeed it creeps into our lives from many directions. However, our reactions to stress will differ based on our genetics, our own circumstances, environment, and life experiences.

Stress can have both positive and negative impacts on our health!

Research has shown that small amounts of stress can be good for us; improving our memory(1), benefit our performance and motivation(2) as well as activating the immune system(3).

However, when we have prolonged levels of stress for long periods of time, this can cause our health to be compromised, causing memory impairment as cortisol has an inverse relationship with memory(4), cognition decrease(5), gastrointestinal disorders like IBS(6), an increased risk of cardiovascular disease(7) and suppression of our immune function(8).

In the UK in 2011, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for the greatest amount of lost working time (11.4 million days a year) with the average days lost per case being 27 days(9).

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(10).

Actively working to manage stress, will have a positive impact on our ability to support our mood and 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. Eating well during our working life supports employees to stay healthy, ensuring that businesses have a reliable workforce who are well enough to do their jobs, but also feel valued, supported and engaged.

Here are three of our key tips to eat well during times of stress:

  1. Build a strong foundation, without solid foundations we are all in rocky territory. So, strive for variety on our plate at mealtime. Try to have a balance of the foods on your plate aiming for complex carbohydrates (25%), protein (25%) and vegetables/fruit (50%). How colourful is your plate at each meal? Add more colour by increasing the fruit and vegetables you consume and therefore increase your nutrient intake.
  2. Be mindful of what you eat and drink and how it can impact our blood glucose levels. Often our cravings for sugar or a caffeine fix 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.
  3. Do we think about how we eat? How many of us stand and hover while eat, eat on the go, or 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, 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 are key, especially in times of stress. While we appreciate it is often not easy, eating well, staying well hydrated and frequent physical exercise can provide the support needed for accurate decision-making and help prevent lower concentration levels, fatigue and anxiety.

 

References:

  1. 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, 265
  2. McEwen, B. S. (2019). What Is the Confusion With Cortisol?. Chronic Stress, 3, 2470547019833647.
  3. Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic research, 58(2-3), 193-210.
  4. 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.
  5. Arnsten, A. F. (2015). Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Nature neuroscience, 18(10), 1376.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beatiful. Immunologic research, 58(2-3), 193-210.
  9. Department of Health, Mental Health Promotion and Mental Illness Prevention: the Economic Case (2011), http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_126085.
  10. Gatineau M, Dent M (2011) Obesity and Mental Health. Oxford: National Obesity Observatory.