Never is nutrition more important than in the times of chronic, prolonged mental or emotional stress. But for many of us, what’s on our meal plate is the last thing on our mind, when we are worrying…food, if anything, may become our emotional crutch, drink our friend in worry; or we may use the restriction over food to feel that we at least have control over something.
Article by Taru Towers, Nutritional Therapist ( click here to visit Taru’s website)
If you find yourself enduring a prolonged stress, putting in place some dietary and lifestyle self-care measures can truly ease your journey and get you out of feeling the pressure much sooner.
A word about stress
Stress, or rather a stressor can be psychological or physical, real or perceived. Regardless of its origin, it initiates a same response in the body. This response is governed mainly by two key hormones adrenaline and cortisol and governed by our nervous and endocrine systems.
While we are very well adapted to responding to acute stress, we don’t fare so well with prolonged, or chronically repeated stress. When capacity to respond to stress starts to falter, we start to experience impaired sleep, mood swings and anxiety, body weight changes, reduced cognitive capacity and our risk of cardiovascular disease increases greatly.
For men, prolonged stress can lead to decreased testosterone levels and decreased sexual function. For women, chronically high cortisol can demonstrate as menstrual problems or recurrent thrush and a total lack of libido.
Chronic stress will impair digestion and this, coupled with an increased need for nutrients to due to high stress-hormone output, can fairly quickly lead to nutrient deficiency. One may first experience heartburn or reflux as the stomach acid levels initially raise, but further down the line the stomach acid secretion is often reduced, leading to suboptimal digestive capacity. As good stomach acid levels are imperative for us so we can absorb the nutrients from the foods, low acid levels can quickly have deleterious consequences.
Prolonged stress will also alter our gut microbiome, which hosts our immunity and guards the integrity of our gut wall. Bloating, pain, wind and altered bowel movement (diarrhea or constipation) are all hallmarks of changes in the gut microbiota. It is common also to develop food sensitivities, as the stressed digestive system struggles to function.
Studies have found, that stress, especially when coupled with sleep deprivation, guides us towards more energy dense foods which also provide energy fast such as sugars and fats. Stimulant use (such as coffee, alcohol) often also increases, masking underlying fatigue and leading to us feeling ‘wired and tired’.
Eating in the times of prolonged stress
The cornerstones of nutrition in prolonged stress are
Rythm, i.e. regular meal times as best as possible.
Low GI, high nutrient density foods with low/no intake of stimulants such as coffee, sugar and alcohol.
Good chewing. This simple act can radically improve your ability to digest and get the best out of your foods.
Focusing on the sensory aspects of good food can also create a welcome break from focusing on stressful things and the gratitude for our food can guide the busy brain away from catastrophizing thought patterns.
Skipping meals can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), initiating a stress reaction in the body than contributes to the stress you’re already experiencing. So even if you are not hungry, aim to have some wholefoods in your regular mealtime to keep your blood sugar stable. Avoid heavy meals however, as these can easily overwhelm digestion, leading to pain, bloating or altered bowel movement.
Some nutrients of interest
To a drop in one’s blood sugar levels, ideally all meals should contain a portion of high-quality protein (either animal or plant sources). While individual requirements differ depending on activity levels, aim to include approximately 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day.
Protein slows down digestion providing us with steady energy and is required for the production of hormones, neurotransmitters and tissues.
But remember; good stomach acid levels are required for the body to break down protein to its smaller constituents, amino acids. If yours are low (you can test this easily at home with a bicarbonate test), you can use a supplement to aid digestion or use lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in water to help acidify the stomach.
Protein sources rich in the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine are of special interest in prolonged stress. Tryptophan is converted to serotonin, our ‘happy hormone’ and later on to melatonin, our sleep-inducing hormone and a powerful antioxidant. Foods rich in tryptophan are eggs (use organic if possible), fish (halibut, salmon, mackerel), lamb, chia seeds, game, poultry (use organic where possible) and whole oats.
Tyrosine is an amino acid required for both thyroid and stress hormone production. It is found in pumpkin and sesame seeds, cashews and milk products. B-vitamins, especially B6 and B5 are important for amino metabolism. B6 is rich in animal foods, including organic organ meats, fresh dairy (such as organic cottage cheese), fish and whole grains like brown/wild/red rice and oats.
Healthy fats work similarly to proteins, providing a stable release of energy and counteracting cravings and mood swings. Get yours directly from food sources such as from avocados, fatty fish or organic free range meat, coconut and nuts and seeds.
From the micronutrients, zinc and magnesium are those often depleted by chronic stress. Zinc is required for the production of stomach acid, and this key mineral is often deficient in modern day diets. Food sources rich in zinc are sesame and pumpkin seeds, oysters, liver, lamb and lentils.
Magnesium is our “chill mineral” and boy do we burn through this nutrient in the times of stress. Foods rich in this beautiful mineral include all green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, quinoa, cashews, sunflower seeds, avocados. Again, we require good stomach acid levels to be able to absorb the mineral from the bulk of the food.
Lastly is worth to note omega 3 oils, as adequate (~2g per day) intake is associated with more stable mood. Fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines and anchovies) provide rich food sources.
The dance of sodium and potassium
Prolonged stress may lead to symptoms of postural hypotension; this is dizziness when standing up quickly. If our blood pressure is very low, as it often is in the case of postural hypotension, we can use salt therapeutically to improve blood pressure levels and avoid dizziness spells. For many however stress causes high blood pressure (hypertension), which calls for restriction in salt intake and increases in potassium intake. Potassium is rich in whole plant foods and a banana for example is loaded with potassium. This balance of sodium and potassium is very important, as they govern the function of every cell in our body, let alone our blood pressure.
To read Taru’s non-dietery tips for stress relief click here