Balanced nutrition is essential to maintaining overall good health, but it also can affect your capacity to cope with stress. When you are going through a period of stress, you need more of all nutrients, particularly the B vitamins, which affect the nervous system, and calcium, which is needed to counteract the lactic acid your tense muscles produce. Likewise, if you are lacking nutrients, your body will not be equipped to handle stress effectively.
Eat a variety of foods to ensure that you consume all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids (from proteins), essential fatty acids (from vegetable oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish), and energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fat. While most foods contain more than one nutrient, no single food provides adequate amounts of all nutrients. Try to maintain a diet of mostly whole (unprocessed) foods. Stay away from caffeine (coffee, tea, cola, chocolate), which causes nervousness and inhibits sleep if too much is ingested. Caffeine causes a fight-or-flight response in your body and uses up your reserves of the B vitamins, which are important in coping with stress. Alcohol also depletes your body’s B vitamins, and can disrupt sleep and impair your judgment or clarity of thought. Avoid sugar. It provides no essential nutrients and can cause an immediate “high” followed by a prolonged “low.”
Studies have shown that the body depletes its stores of nutrients when under stress, mainly protein and the B vitamins as well as vitamins C and A. A deficiency of magnesium, which helps muscles relax, has been linked to “Type A” or high-stress personalities. Every single muscle that we hold in tension, often for years and even when we are asleep, is consuming energy, B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium – to name but a few. If you are under prolonged stress or are at risk for hypertension, consume foods high in potassium, such as fresh orange juice, squash, potatoes, apricots, limes, bananas, avocados, tomatoes, and peaches. You also should increase your intake of calcium, which is found in yogurt, cheese, tofu, almonds and chick peas.
Since every person is unique, nutritional needs vary to some degree. It will probably take several months to change your diet and establish healthy eating habits. Experimenting and taking the time to reform your eating will have very positive immediate and long-term effects. Choose foods that you enjoy and try to make meals pleasurable times. Eat a relaxed meal. Continue your healthy diet and supplements even after the period of stress has passed so that your body will be best prepared to cope with the next stressful situation you encounter. The goal is to maintain maximum health with good nutrition, exercise, and active stress management.
HOW STRESS CONTRIBUTES TO HEALTH PROBLEMS
The stress response triggers off high levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are produced regardless of the type of stress experienced, from emergencies (an impending car accident, for example) to slower-acting stresses (such as pressure at work, traffic jams or drinking coffee or alcohol).
These stress hormones use up significant amounts of vitamin C, B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc. And because these vitamins and minerals are required for an emergency, they take priority over the body’s general use for these nutrients. This means that, for example, vitamin C and zinc are not sufficiently available for collagen production to keep skin clear and to make white blood cells to fend off infections; B-vitamins are not fully available for energy production and mental function; calcium absorption is blocked, leading to osteoporosis; there is increased salt and water retention leading to high blood pressure; oestrogen dominance leading to PMS, fibroids and breast cancer.
Stress sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and within seconds heart rate is increased, the muscles tense, the eyes dilate, the blood thickens, blood sugar rises, and non-essential activities such as digestion, cleansing and rejuvenation shut down leading to accelerated aging. The effects of long-term stress are even more insidious. The pituitary, adrenals, pancreas and liver are constantly pumping out hormones to control blood sugar, levels of the anti-aging adrenal hormone and cortisol start to fall, and before long the body cannot respond to stress as it used to.
Diet A well balanced diet is crucial in preserving health and helping to reduce stress. Certain foods and drinks act as powerful stimulants to the body and hence are a direct cause of stress. This stimulation, although quite pleasurable in the short term, may be quite harmful in the long run.
Caffeine This is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, Coke, Red Bull etc. It causes the release of adrenaline, thus increasing the level of stress. When taken in moderation, coffee can increase your alertness, increased activity in the muscles, nervous system and heart. Consuming too much caffeine has the same effect as long term stress. It is suggested that there is a link between caffeine intake and high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Be careful in reducing the coffee or caffeine consumption. Cutting it off abruptly can result in your experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Reduce the consumption slowly over a period of time.
Alcohol Alcohol is a major cause of stress.
The irony of the situation is that most people take to drinking as a way to combat stress. But, in actuality, they make it worse by consuming alcohol. Alcohol and stress, in combination, are quite deadly. Alcohol stimulates the secretion of adrenaline resulting in the problems such as nervous tension, irritability and insomnia. Excess alcohol will increase the fat deposits in the heart and decrease the immune function. Alcohol also limits the ability of the liver to remove toxins from the body. During stress, the body produces several toxins and in the absence of its filtering by the liver, these toxins continue to circulate through the body resulting in serious damage.
Smoking Many people use cigarettes as a coping mechanism. In the short term, smoking seems to relieve stress but in the long term smoking is very harmful. Its disadvantages far outweigh its short-term benefits. Cigarette smoking is shown to be responsible for a variety of cancers, hypertension, respiratory illness and heart disease.
Sugar Sugar has no essential nutrients. It provides a short-term boost of energy through the body, resulting possibly in the exhaustion of the adrenal glands. This can result in irritability, poor concentration, and depression. High sugar consumption puts a severe load on the pancreas. There is increasing possibility of developing diabetes. Keep your blood sugar constant. Do not use sugar as a “pick me up.”
Salt Salt increases the blood pressure, depletes adrenal glands, and causes emotional instability. Use a salt substitute that has potassium rather than sodium. Avoid junk foods high in salt such as bacon, ham, pickles, sausage, etc.
Fat Avoid the consumption of foods rich in saturated fats. Fats cause obesity and put unnecessary stress on the cardiovascular system. Saturated fat is believed to cause breast, colon and prostate cancers. Essential fatty acids found in nuts, seeds and oily fish are, however, very beneficial.
Eat a meal high in complex carbohydrates Complex carbohydrates trigger release of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which soothes you. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, wholemeal pasta, potatoes, wholemeal bread (unless avoiding wheat), oats, rye, barley.
Eat Food High In Fibre Stress results in cramps and constipation. Eat more fibre to keep your digestive system moving. Your meal should provide at least 25 grams of fibre per day. Fruits, vegetables and grains are excellent sources of fibre.
Eat More Vegetables Your brain’s production of serotonin is sensitive to your diet. Eating more vegetables can increase your brain’s serotonin production. This increase is due to improved absorption of the amino acid L-Tryptophan. (Vegetables contain the natural, safe, form of L Tryptophan.) Meats contain natural L-Tryptophan also, but when you eat meat, the L-Tryptophan has to compete with so many other amino acids for absorption that the L-Tryptophan loses out. The net result is that you get better absorption of L-Tryptophan when you eat vegetables.
Wilson J Adrenal Fatigue The 21st Century Stress Syndrome Smart Publications 2001
David S, Stewart A Nutritional Medicine Pan Books 1987