Armed with the latest knowledge, this weeks blog offers some guidance on the nutritional changes you can implement (alongside some key stress management measures) to help support your body and mind against the negative effects of stress that many of us experience on a daily basis.
Apparently we are 1000 times more stressed than our grandparents generation. Not only are our working days much longer, we have laptops, mobile phones and iPads keeping us online 24/7 and so we’re wired from the moment we wake until our head hits the pillow. With little time to empty our head of endless chatter our minds are constantly activated. Even though many of us know we should be mediating, breathing deeply and doing more yoga we still find ourselves reciting our ‘to do’ list mid downward dog. Switching off our stress response is much easier said than done.
What is Stress?
Stress is a physical disruption of something called homeostasis, that is our body’s ability to balance our biological environment. The glands responsible for eliciting a stress response are called the adrenals and these sit on top of the kidneys. They secrete hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which carry out the stress response.
Many daily events can lead to a stress response and you’re more than likely familiar with the triggers that lead you to experience that common sensation of anxiety and anger. Life changing events, bereavements, loss of a job, parenting, running a business and studying are just a few common examples. What you may not realise is that some common health issues can also lead to a stress response in the body including infection, poor blood sugar management, digestive health issues and inflammation.
Our bodies are well equipped to deal with short sharp bursts of stress, however, long term chronic stress is associated with the following:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Elevated blood sugar levels
- Lowered immunity
- Digestive issues
- Thyroid hormone dysfunction
- Increased visceral (central) body fat
- Depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
- Impaired memory and cognitive function
There is a great deal you can do with your nutrition, exercise routine and lifestyle habits that can help mitigate and buffer the effects of chronic stress. We’ll be covering all of these in-depth in future blogs. The following ten steps detail how to adapt the foundation of your nutrition to help support yourself against stress.
1) Don’t Skip Breakfast
We always advocate a high protein breakfast for adrenal fatigue which should be eaten within 30 minutes of waking. This is essential to help promote good blood sugar management for the rest of the day, however, it’s also important because our body’s production of stress hormones is highest in the morning. Cortisol peaks first thing and is actually our waking hormone, it then gradually dips throughout the day to make way for your sleep hormone melatonin, which starts to rise around 8pm. If you struggle to wake in the morning even after 8-9 hours sleep it could be a sign of low cortisol levels. It’s important to get nutrients in first thing by having a good breakfast, a mid morning snack and early lunch around 11-12pm to help boost up flagging energy levels.
2) Eat Nutrient Dense Foods
A stress response rapidly depletes nutrients in the body so if you take one thing away from this article it should be the importance of eating nutrient dense foods every single day. If you’ve read our Fitter Food book you’ll see we advocate a Primal/Paleo foundation for everyone, eliminating most grains, refined sugar and vegetable oils. In the book we provide a list of essential nutrients and foods that offer the richest sources. Stress increases our need for many nutrients, in particular B vitamins, zinc, vitamin C and magnesium are all increased. Given that most of us experience some form of stress on a regular basis there is simply no room for empty calories on your plate.
3) Hit Your Protein Requirements
In times of chronic stress it’s wise to include a serving of protein at every meal as stress can totally derail your blood sugar management and protein helps to buffer this effect. Our bodies stress response is referred to as “fight or flight” as it’s designed to equip us to do exactly that. The inner part of the adrenal glands (known as the medulla) secretes adrenaline and noradrenaline, which serve to elevate our heart rate, heighten our senses and increase our blood pressure to allow us to run from danger or embark in some form of self defence.
In stress mode the body will start to mobilise glucose into the blood stream ready for the muscles to use and fuel this stress response. Of course the reality is we are not actually running anywhere, we’re likely stuck in a traffic jam, sat at a laptop or just feeling angry and irritated by a thought, conversation or event. Protein is hugely effective in helping to blunt the stress response and keeping glucose levels nice and steady. Tryptophan rich proteins, such as turkey and liver, may be particularly helpful especially if eaten in the evenings when you need to calm the body down and stop the stress response. Trytopthan (an amino acid) is a precursor to serotonin, our good mood brain chemical, which supports healthy sleep patterns. If you find you struggle to switch off at night after a hectic day, try serving up our Crackin Balls or Pesto Turkey Burgers as evening supper to help support healthy hormonal balance.
Furthermore protein needs maybe increased by the chronic activation of the adrenal glands as the body will start to catabolise (break down) it’s own tissues to fuel the ongoing demands of the stress response. The body will start to eat up your lean muscle mass which you wish to avoid at all cost, not just because you love your guns but because studies have shown the more muscle mass you have the longer you live!
Protein also forms the building blocks of our immune system, as we mentioned earlier stress can compromise your immune health. Cortisol actually offers an anti-inflammatory effect, that’s why we are usually offered cortisone injections if we suffer from joint pains or an injury. Inflammation is our bodies response to infection or tissue damage and cortisol ensures this doesn’t get out of control by modulating your immune system.
If we experience stress long term our cortisol levels maybe too high and exerting a powerful anti-inflammatory effect that actually suppresses the immune system making you susceptible to illness and infection. On the other hand if you have exhausted your adrenal reserves and flat lined your cortisol production, there is nothing to stop your immune system going into over drive leading to chronic inflammation and potentially auto-immune conditions.
The key is obviously to manage stress in the first place but protein becomes vital in this situation to help build up your natural defence system. As a minimum consume 1g of protein per kilo of bodyweight, you may need to increase this to 1.2-2g per kilo of bodyweight depending upon your stress and physical activity levels. Use MyFitness Pal to monitor your daily intake.
4) Avoid Low Carbohydrate Diets
Carbohydrates play an essential role in modulating stress hormones. When we eat carbohydrates we release the hormone insulin, a slow steady release of insulin will keep cortisol in check as the two hormones have a close interplay. In the early stages of chronic stress our cortisol levels maybe too high and therefore consuming some carbohydrates at breakfast (with some protein and healthy fats) can play an essential role in keeping cortisol in check. Conversely, if our blood sugar dips too low we release cortisol to carry us through the ‘crisis.’ This may happen if you don’t consume enough carbohydrates, go too long without eating or experience a sugar crash after eating something with spiked your glucose levels.
Around 20-40% of your total calories should be sourced from carbohydrates. What’s important is that your sources of carbohydrates are nutritious and the insulin release is slow and steady. For this reason you should favour starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes and experiment with white potatoes and white rice (checking your blood glucose would be helpful here). Avoid anything refined as well as any flour based products.
5) Fill Up On Fats
Hormone production requires cholesterol and without sufficient amounts in your diet you may experience exhaustion as you can’t produce adequate levels of stress hormones cortisol or adrenaline to fuel your busy lifestyle. Fats will also keep your blood sugar levels stable and keep you feeling satiated. Increasing fat intake can also help improve mood health and your ability to tolerate or cope with stressful situations.
Focus on consuming healthy, saturated fats from grass fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, egg yolks and grass fed meats including lamb, beef and wild game. Monounsaturated fats are also beneficial, our favourite sources include avocados, macadamia nuts and unfiltered extra virgin olive oil.
6) Eat More Oily Fish
Research has shown omega 3 fatty acids often help individuals cope with psychological stress and lowers cortisol levels. Clinical studies have shown low intake of omega 3 fats are associated with angry and aggressive behaviour.
Aim to have three servings of sardines, wild salmon or anchovies a week. Our Honey & Mustard Salmon is a great place to start. For the omega 3 fats to be effective it’s vital that you also reduce your consumption of omega 6 rich foods as the two fats compete in the body. We cover this in more detail in our Fitter Food Book. Eliminating sunflower, corn, soy, rapeseed and safflower is essential and these are often abundant in processed foods.
7) Eat Unrefined Salt
Long term stress will decrease levels of aldosterone the hormone which modulates our sodium retention (supporting water retention and therefore high blood pressure). Healthy levels of sodium are essential for healthy blood pressure. Many people suffering from stress experience dizzy spells and low blood pressure as their aldosterone levels decrease. In fact many of our stressed clients mention craving salt. Consume as much unrefined salt as you can, we use Celtic Sea salt or Himalayan pink salt. Taking ½ teaspoon with water upon waking can help regulate blood pressure and improve early morning energy levels.
8) Dip Into Dark Chocolate
Indulge in some dark chocolate. As a rich source of magnesium (the calming mineral) and one of the most endorphin-producing foods, chocolate has a powerful effect on our mindset and mood. Some people believe it’s more calming than marijuana, let’s not test that theory!
Many components of dark chocolate have been studied, in particular the flavanol content. A recent study measured the cortisol and adrenaline production in men consuming dark chocolate (72% before you ask) versus men who received a placebo chocolate without flavanols. The men were then subjected to stress by participating in a mock job interview and a 5 minute mental arithmetic task in front of an audience, the mere thought of which is already giving us nightmares! Those consuming the dark chocolate had lower levels of cortisol and adrenaline and also reported experiencing less stress during the process, whoop whoop!
Opt for dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa solids but ideally 85-90%. A 25-30g serving is all you need to obtain the benefit without impacting upon your waistline. You could also get your monounsaturated fat fix with some cocoa by giving our Fitter MnM’s at try.
9 ) Ditch the Coffee for Green Tea
Caffeine has been show to elevate cortisol production, if you’re experiencing high levels of physical or psychological stress it’s wise to ditch the coffee, black tea and other caffeinated beverages like energy drinks as they will simply heighten the symptoms of stress. Green tea on the other hand contains L-theanine, which has a calming influence on the body. Two cups of loose-leaf green tea taken in the morning will provide a sustained energy release without the caffeine crash.
You don’t have to forego you’re beloved brew as there are plenty of naturally decaffeinated options widely available so simply switch to a good Swiss water processed decaffeinated coffee, we love Grumpy Mule or Monsoon Estate. And Clipper offer a great selection of decaffeinated black and green tea.
10) Eat Small Meals Frequently
Don’t skip meals if you are experiencing high levels of stress, especially if you’re feeling fatigued. Whilst we believe there is a place for intermittent fasting this is not the time to start experimenting! Your blood glucose and fluid regulation may already be going awol so eating every 3-4 hours is more supportive in this case. Digestive function may also be lowered so it’s important to try and eat in a calm, peaceful environment (no laptop, phone or eating on the go) and breathe deeply to send the body into ‘Rest & Digest‘ mode and get the digestive enzymes and stomach acid flowing. Having an early evening meal (around 5-6pm) is also helpful to give you time to relax in the evening and digest your food adequately before bedtime. If you feel peckish later in the evening a small protein based snack maybe helpful, some salty bone broth or soup often hits the spot.