Are you stressed? Join the club! Stress has become so much part and parcel of everyday living that you may not even notice how it is affecting you. If you regularly have any of these warning signs, you may be more stressed than you think:
Whilst we may all get stressed from time to time, chronic stress can be very damaging to your health, depleting the body of nutrients, decreasing the body’s rate of repair and negatively affecting gut health and the immune system. Chronic stress can be a major factor in conditions ranging from osteoporosis and obesity to diabetes, digestive disorders, insomnia and cardiovascular disease.
The different stages of stress
Stage 1: Alarm
Alarm is the first stage of the stress response. This stage of “fight or flight” is the body’s primal survival mechanism intended to save us from physical danger. Both biochemical and hormonal reactions are involved at this stage, which are regulated by your nervous system and adrenal glands. Stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are produced by the adrenal glands which raises the heart and breathing rate and increases body temperature, blood pressure and blood sugar in order to make more oxygen, sugar and nutrients available to your muscles and brain so that you are able to fight or head for the hills!
When cortisol is released during the alarm reaction, the immune system as well as non-essential functions such as digestion and reproduction are suppressed. This is an energy saving tactic, prioritising survival and saving vital glucose for physical exertion in the face of attack!
Stage 2: Adaptation / Resistance
When stress becomes prolonged your adrenal glands are increasingly overworked and the “fight or flight” reaction is cancelled. As your body becomes less responsive to cortisol, more is needed and this is produced at the expense of the hormone, DHEA. This can lead to fatigue and weakness as well as hormonal imbalance. Additionally, although blood sugar is raised, there is usually no muscular activity to use it up, so more insulin is needed to transport the sugar into the cells. At this stage, symptoms of stress such as low energy, low mood, constipation, cravings, low thyroid function and impaired digestion may start to appear.
Stage 3. Exhaustion
In this final stage both cortisol and DHEA levels are very low, the body slows down and the adrenals become exhausted. Signs of adrenal fatigue include nervousness and irritability, blood sugar imbalance, poor digestion, reduced immunity, low alcohol tolerance, headaches, constant fatigue and poor concentration and memory. At this stage you are heading for “burn out” and serious ill health.
How diet can help
When you’re stressed, it can be only too easy to skip meals and snack on high sugar, processed foods. But this upsets blood sugar balance and leads to energy peaks and troughs throughout the day.
Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and rice and choose fibrous wholegrain varieties – wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta which keep you fuller and support more constant energy levels.
Aim to combine protein and fibrous foods as this will slow down the release of natural sugars into the blood.
How does sugar-free muesli with natural yogurt or scrambled egg on toast for breakfast sound? For lunch, a chicken salad or jacket potato with salad and tuna will provide a filling meal, keep blood sugar on the straight and narrow, and provide sustained energy. Dinner could be a chickpea curry with brown rice or grilled fish with vegetables?
Too much caffeine can make you feel anxious and jittery and may also set up a vicious cycle of dependence on stimulants to get you through the day. Start by replacing one caffeinated drink a day with a herb tea or green tea (lower in caffeine than regular tea or coffee). Aim to drink 1-1.5 litres of water a day. Remember that soups also count towards your daily fluid intake.
It’s all too easy to turn to sugar when you’re stressed for that quick burst of energy, but this will inevitably be followed by a slump, leaving you with cravings for your next sugar hit! Instead, reach for a bag of mixed nuts or a piece of fresh fruit such as an apple or pear.
Particular nutrients play a crucial role in supporting the body during times of stress.
Vitamin C – Vitamin C is vital for adrenal health. As we have seen, when you are stressed, your adrenal glands work overtime and vitamin C, which is concentrated in these glands, is quickly depleted. To keep up with the body’s need for vitamin C, eat plenty of citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts as well as green and red peppers.
B vitamins – quickly used up when under stress, the B vitamins are vital for energy production and adrenal health. Boost your intake by eating wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, eggs, legumes, seeds and poultry and if necessary, top up with a well absorbed B complex with additional pantothenic acid (B5), as this is the most important anti-stress B vitamin.
Magnesium – essential for adrenal hormone production and depleted by chronic stress. Magnesium is necessary to relax the mind and the muscles as well as for stress resilience, blood sugar control and energy production. Nuts and seeds as well as avocados, wholegrains and leafy green veg are all great sources of magnesium.
Chromium - helps balance blood sugar levels for sustained energy throughout the day. May also be useful if you experience sugar cravings.
Finally, take a hike! Or at least a walk in the fresh air – exercise promotes the brain’s release of endorphins - chemicals which appear to support natural immunity, reduce the perception of pain and may also improve mood. Regular exercise may also improve sleep patterns, help to relieve stress and boost self-esteem. Simply walking in the fresh air for 30 minutes a day is a great way to start.