A colleague of mine requested for an article on stress and I thought we could all learn from it. It contains virtually a little of everything you would need to know on the connection between stress and nutrition. I guarantee you would have lots of fun. Let’s go!
Stress and the Body
Being aware of how your body works and deals with stress can help you to manage stress and stressful situations. After a stressful period the human body can go into a ‘recovery mode’ where increased appetite and food cravings become more prevalent. At the same time metabolic rates drop to conserve energy. Being aware of these patterns can help you manage your stress levels and through nutrition and diet you can help your body recover from stressful periods more rapidly and minimise negative effects like weight gain.
Cortisol and Stress
Of course we know that stress can affect your body in many ways and that your waistline is a particularly notable victim of stress. Sadly, this is true. There are several ways in which stress can contribute to weight gain. One has to do with cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. When we’re under stress, the fight or flight response is triggered in our bodies, leading to the release of various hormones, including cortisol. When there is more cortisol in our system, we may crave less healthy food options such as snacks containing high sugar and fat content, and this can adversely affect our nutrition and health.
Whether we’re stressed because of constant, crazy demands at work or we’re really in danger, our bodies respond like we’re about to be harmed and need to fight for our lives. To answer this need, that body experiences a burst of energy, shifts in metabolism and blood flow, and other changes.These changes can affect digestion, appetite, and nutrition in many ways.
What happens during stress?
When we go through stress, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to help us think more clearly and be ready for a physical response if required. In effect, cortisol and adrenaline are secreted. Cortisol is chiefly known as the body’s stress hormone. Let’s take an indept look at cortisol and how it functions in relation with our diet.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone) produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress. Cortisol’s far-reaching, systemic effects play many roles in the body’s effort to carry out its processes and maintain balance (homeostasis) .Cortisol curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation as detected by adrenaline. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
However in modern life we can become stressed for many reasons other than impending danger and yet our bodily reactions are the same. With their pre-determined instincts, our bodies’ still prepare our minds in this instinctive way and give less priority to other, less urgent, functions. Digestion is one such function that is given a lower priority during stressful situations, this is not good as poor digestion can make us feel unwell and this in turn can be a source of stress.
Why is cortisol so important?
Cortisol accelerates the breakdown of proteins into amino acids (except in liver cells). These amino acids move out of the tissues into the blood and to liver cells, where they are changed to glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. A prolonged high blood concentration of cortisol in the blood results in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood glucose.
Isn’t this bad?
Not exactly. By raising plasma glucose levels, cortisol provides the body with the energy it requires to combat stress from trauma, illness, fright, infection, bleeding, etc.
Obviously, this is bad from a muscle breakdown perspective; however, the body is simply trying to preserve carbohydrate stores and deliver energy when it needs it most. Acutely, cortisol also mobilizes fatty acids from fat cells and even helps to maintain blood pressure.
As it’s part of inflammatory response, cortisol is necessary for recovery from injury and healing. However, chronically high levels of cortisol in the blood can decrease white blood cells and antibody formation, which can lower immunity. This is the most important therapeutic property of glucocorticoids, since they can reduce the inflammatory response and this, in itself, suppresses immunity.
Thus, cortisol is:
Whether these effects are “good” or “bad” depends on whether cortisol’s release is acute (ie brief and infrequent) or chronic (i.e continuous).
Understanding the Natural Stress Response
When a threat is perceived the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain, sets off an alarm system in the body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts the adrenal glands, located atop the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Of interest to the dietetics community, cortisol also plays an important role in human nutrition. It regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of substrate (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it. When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.
Stress and Nutrition: The Connection
Prolonged stress can alter blood sugar levels, causing mood swings, fatigue, and conditions like hyperglycemia. Too much stress has even been linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health concerns that can lead to greater health problems, like heart attacks and diabetes.
Excessive stress affects fat storage. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not only aesthetically undesirable, it’s linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body and high risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. How many times have you found yourself scouring the kitchen for a snack, or absently munching on junk food when you’re stressed, but not really hungry?
Experts believe that one of the big reasons obesity is on the rise in our society these days is that people are too stressed and busy to make healthy dinners at home, often opting to get fast foods instead. Fast food and even healthier restaurant choices can both be higher in sugar and fat. Even in the healthiest circumstances, you don’t know what you’re eating when you’re not eating at home, and can’t control what goes into your food. Because of this and because restaurants often add less healthy ingredients like butter to enhance taste, it’s safer to eat at home.
Too Busy to Exercise
With all the demands of our schedules, exercise may be one of the last things on your to-do list. If so, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, from sitting in traffic, clocking hours at our desks, and plopping in front of the TV in exhaustion at the end of the day, exercise often goes by the wayside.
Caffeine and Stress
Caffeine is found mostly in coffee, tea, some soft drinks and chocolate. It can have negative effects on the body if taken in high quantities and habitually. Caffeine is a neurostimullator which increases heartbeat and keeps the mind alert. This makes it difficult for people taking coffee to sleep properly or even relax. Soon enough the body gets tired but still can’t go to sleep. Getting adequate sleep is an important factor in reducing stress levels. Caffeine and stress can both elevate cortisol levels, high amounts of caffeine ( which on its own can cause stress) can lead to the negative health effects associated with prolonged elevated levels of cortisol. When one ingests high levels of caffeine, you feel a mood surge and plummet, leaving a craving for more caffeine to make it soar again. This leads to insomnia, some other health consequences (such as arrhythmia) and, of course, stress. However, small to moderate amounts of caffeine can lift your mood and give you a boost.
Effects on the Body:
Hormones- You can feel the effects of caffeine in your system within a few minutes of ingesting it, and it stays on your system for many hours—it has a half-life of four to six hours in your body. While in the body, caffeine affects the following hormones thereby causing stress:
Adenosine: Caffeine can inhibit absorption of adenosine, which calms the body. This makes you feel alert in the short run, but can cause sleep problems later.
Adrenaline:Caffeine releases adrenaline into the system, giving a temporary boost, but possibly causing fatigue and depression later. If you take more caffeine to counteract these effects, you end up spending the day in an agitated state, and might find yourself jumpy and edgy by night.
Cortisol: Caffeine can increase the body’s levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, which can lead to other health consequences ranging from weight gain and moodiness to heart disease and diabetes.
Dopamine– Caffeine increases dopamine levels in the system, acting in a way similar to amphetamines, which can make you feel good after taking it, but after it wears off you can feel ‘low’. This effect can also lead to a physical dependence because of dopamine manipulation.
Alcohol, Sugar, Salt and Nicotine:
You should aim to reduce your intake of alcohol, sugar and salt. Too much of these are never good. Consumption of these items are all known to strip the body of essential nutrients and undo the work of a healthier diet. Stop smoking! Although reaching for a cigarette may feel like instant stress relief it actually causes greater stress over time.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels With Diet (isn’t this wonderful?!?)
Stress and diet:
Stress and diet have always been linked. It is possible that someone eating a healthy, balanced diet is going to be far less stressed than someone eating a poor diet. If one is feeling overly stressed, the digestive system is probably under a great deal of strain, therefore making changes to your diet key to feeling better physically and emotionally. You can greatly help manage cortisones levels and regain your health by maintaining a suitable diet, exercise routine, sleep and stress levels. In absence of Cushing’s Disease, here are steps that help lower high cortisol levels naturally:
1. Switch to a Whole Foods, Anti-inflammatory Diet
Poorly managed blood sugar levels (especially hypoglycemia, having low blood sugar) and high levels of inflammation can contribute to high cortisol levels and other hormonal imbalances. Following an anti-inflammatory diet low in processed foods and high in antioxidants, fiber and essential nutrients is key to balancing hormones, controlling cravings and tackling stress. These same strategies can also help with adrenal support, allowing you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, boosting energy during the day and helping aid sleep.
Some of the most significant dietary contributors to inflammation and high cortisol levels include:
*High-sugar, high-glycemic diet (with many packaged foods, refined grain products, sugary drinks and snacks).
*Consuming high amounts of refined and trans fats
drinking too much caffeine and alcohol.
*Insufficient intake of micronutrients and antioxidants.
*Low fiber content of food (which makes it hard to balance blood sugar)
*Low consumption of unsaturated fats or unhealthy protein (which can lead to hunger, weight gain and high blood sugar).
Instead, switching to a low-glycemic diet, include healthy fats and proteins with every meal, and make sure to get enough fiber and phytonutrients by eating plenty fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the most useful foods for lowering cortisol and stabilizing blood sugar include vegetables; fruits; coconut or olive oil; nuts; seeds; lean proteins like eggs, fish and grass-fed beef; and probiotic foods (like yogurt, kefir or cultured vegetables).
2. Use Adaptogen Herbs and Superfoods:
Adaptogen herbs help naturally lower high cortisol levels in several key ways. They help balance hormones; reduce inflammation due to their strong antioxidant, antiviral and antibacterial effects; they possess natural antidepressant effects; lower fatigue; and help balance blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Many adaptogens, such as mushrooms and cocoa, have been safely used for thousands of years to promote better overall health with little to no side effects.
There are at least various proven adaptogenic herbs that can help lower cortisol, including ginseng, garlic, basil and medicinal mushrooms among others.
3. On Stressful Days, Eat Little and Often (small frequent meals):
This will keep the metabolism ticking all day and minimise peaks and troughs in energy levels. Eat breakfast, though you may not feel hungry or believe you do not have enough time. Eating breakfast helps to kick start metabolism for the day and also helps to stabilise your blood sugar level which will in turn reduce stress. Choose fruit or fruit juice and a whole-grain cereal for maximum benefits.
4. Eat Well Throughout the Day
Be sure to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day and focus on foods containing Vitamins B and C, and Magnesium. B Vitamins can help you feel more energetic after a stressful episode. Bananas, leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, seeds and also meat, fish and dairy products all contain essential B vitamins.
Vitamin C: The adrenal glands contain the largest store of vitamin C in the body and are important in the production of stress hormones. Eat citrus fruit such as oranges, tomatoes, peppers, kiwi fruit, leafy green vegetables, broccoli and other foods rich in Vitamin C.
Magnesium: Magnesiumhelps to relax muscles and reduce anxiety. Increase your magnesium intake by eating nuts, especially Brazil nuts, but also hazelnuts and peanuts. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, especially oats, brown rice and beans are also good sources of magnesium. Take a relaxing bath with a good handful of Epsom salts (available at pharmacists) as these contain magnesium that can be absorbed through your skin.
As well as trying to maximise your intake of certain foodstuffs, you should also be aware of the negative effects of others and therefore try to minimise them.
5. Opt For Green Tea:
If you take a lot of coffee you may not realize the effects caffeine has on your system. However, you can reduce your stress levels and improve your mental performance throughout the day if you gradually wean yourself of large amounts of caffeine. A relatively easy and healthy way to do that is to replace coffee with decafinated green tea, which has a soothing taste and the added benefit of plenty antioxidants!
6. Try Sparkling Juice:
If you’re a cola drinker, you are probably experiencing the same health consequences from caffeine that coffee drinkers experience. A more healthful alternative is sparkling fruit juice, or sparkling water. You won’t only be getting a refreshing treat, but you’ll be adding water to your system, rather than detracting it (caffeine dehydrates, so drinking it is akin to un-drinking water!), and you’ll be avoiding other caffeine-related side effects.
How can a Dietitian help with stress and diet?
Seeing a registered health professional such as a nutritionist is essential if you want to make long-term positive changes to your diet in order to effectively manage stress. A nutritionist can provide tailored nutritional advice and support to ensure all your needs are catered for and specific goals are met. This will involve an assessment to pinpoint nutritional needs and what stress relieving foods will be the most suitable for you. As part of your assessment, your dietitian will look at triggers and contributing factors, as well as any underlying imbalances such as adrenal hormones and thyroid problems. Following this, you will be given a specific diet plan to follow, which will also outline lifestyle changes such as physical activity, which will play an important role in stress management for the long-term.
Dietetics is a subjective science and not a one size fits all so it is important to consult a professional who would treat you as “a person” as conditions applicable to others may not be applicable to your peculiar situation. Good luck.
Stress System Malfunction Could Lead To Serious, Life-Threatening Disease. NIH Backgrounder September 9, 2002.
Teitelbaum, Jacob, M.D. How Stress Can Make You Gain Weight. Total Health Vol 25. no. 5. Oct/Nov 2003.