6 ways to manage stress through your diet and lifestyle
On 2nd November 2022, Stress Awareness Day, run by the International Stress Management Association (ISMA), will be raising awareness of the various ways that stress can impact people and what they can do to manage their stress before it becomes a problem.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of us within the last year have felt so stressed that we have felt unable to cope.
Reducing and minimising the stressors in your life is of course ideal, however, for those stressors that cannot be removed or helped, it’s important to have strategies and tools to support your body to better cope with it. That way, you can help to minimise its impact on your physical and mental health and wellbeing.
In this blog, we will take a look at what stress actually is, when it becomes detrimental and how to manage stress through diet and lifestyle.
Some stress can be a good thing, it can spring us into action to get out of bed and get on with our day and all the things that await us. Without SOME stress, we may not get things done! However, it’s when stress becomes overwhelming that it starts to be problematic and detrimental to our health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally.
What exactly IS stress?
There is actually no medical definition of stress. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.
Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. Something that’s important to understand is that the demand, threat or danger can be real or imagined. Therefore, what people perceive as stress differs from person to person.
When a person senses danger, whether real or imagined, your body launches a physiological response known as the “fight-or-flight” or “stress” response. This is a protective response by your nervous system to provide you with the energy needed to move quickly and either fight it or flee from it.
In the “fight or flight”, also known as ‘sympathetic’ nervous system activation, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released from your adrenal glands, heartbeat is increased, blood flow increases and is pumped around the body, particularly legs and arms, and more oxygen sent to the brain and muscles. Blood sugar levels rise for an instant source of energy to the brain and muscles and blood pressure rises to help get the oxygen and glucose to your extremities for energy.
Whilst all of this is happening, non essential functions such as digestion, fertility and immunity are all shut down in order to preserve energy for the body to fight or flee the stressful situation.
Once the stressor (e.g., the sabre toothed tiger) has gone away, these physiological responses are switched off and normal, calm physiology returns.
Problems occur when stress is not just an acute, once every so often situation, such as being faced with a sabre toothed tiger every few months. Modern day stress is chronic, which means the “fight or flight” stress response is activated chronically for many people each day.
Let’s look at some common modern day stressors to see why this might be the case:
Sources of stress
For our ancestors, danger would be something very real such as coming face to face with a sabre toothed tiger whilst foraging for food and needing to fight it or most likely flee it! Today's modern day stress is very different, however it still elicits the same physiological response in the body.
Modern day stressors include;
Poor diet (e.g., nutrient depleted, high sugar, refined foods, processed foods, stimulants)
Financial problems or worries
Being too busy
Always being switched on and connected online
Children and family
Major life changes such as moving house, a bereavement or having a child
Focusing on bad things that might happen in the future
Inability to accept uncertainty
Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
Too much intense exercise on top of already big life load
Symptoms of stress
Symptoms of stress are far-reaching and impact every person in different ways, therefore, it’s important to be aware of the things/situations that are stressful and from there we can take steps to reduce our own stress load whilst also increasing our bodies resilience to the stress that we cannot remove.
When the stress in your life becomes too much to handle, symptoms can start to manifest and can be a mixture of physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural. Let’s take a look.
Aches and pains
Irritable bowel e.g. bloating, constipation, diarrhoea
Chest pain or rapid heart rate
Irritability, anger, easily upset
Overwhelmed, feeling like you can’t cope
Memory issues, forgetfulness
Unable to concentrate and focus
Do any of these symptoms resonate with you? Perhaps you resonate with one or more from each category. You are not alone.
Let’s look at some top diet and lifestyle habit tips to help you better manage stress and improve your resilience to it.
6 ways to manage stress through your diet and lifestyle
#1. Balance your blood sugar and up your protein
This is a key dietary intervention that everyone should use! Eating meals and foods that put your blood sugar levels outside of the ideal ranges is a form of stress on the body.
The biggest causes of unstable blood sugar levels are sugar and refined carbohydrates. Meals and snacks that are high in sugar and or refined carbohydrates, such as wraps, bagels, cakes, pastors, biscuits, chips and refined cereals, cause your blood sugar levels to rise above the healthy range. This blood sugar spike is shortly followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar, which results in various cognitive symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, confusion, low concentration and headaches. If all your meals and snacks are high in sugar and or carbohydrates plus low in protein, then you’re likely riding the blood sugar roller coaster all day, day in and day out.
Protein is the NUMBER ONE nutrient for stable blood sugar levels. It helps to slow down the release of sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream from your meals. So, always include a good amount of protein with your meals and any snacks. Meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu and unflavoured protein powder are all good choices.
Protein is also needed for the production of your adrenal hormones (from your adrenal glands in response to stress). Protein breaks down into different amino acids, 12 of them can be manufactured by the body but 8 of them are what’s known as ‘essential’ which means they must be taken in through the diet. Tyrosine is a good example of one of the essential amino acids and this one is particularly helpful for making adrenaline. Amino acids are also the raw materials needed to make important brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as the ‘happy chemical’ serotonin, calming GABA and motivating dopamine.
Once you have a protein with all your meals and snacks, it’s time to switch out any refined carbohydrates and replace them with ‘complex’ ones, because these are carbohydrates that break down SLOWLY into glucose and provide a steady drip of sugar into the bloodstream rather than a sharp spike. This prevents the sharp drops in blood sugar that follow the spikes. Good choices include root vegetables such as sweet potato, carrots and beetroot, butternut squash, baby new potatoes with their skin on, beans and lentils, whole oats, rye bread, oatcakes, brown rice, quinoa and buckwheat.
#2. Up the good fats
As well as being another key nutrient for stabilising blood sugar levels, good fats are important for the production of your stress hormones e.g., cortisol. There is some research to suggest that the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA may help to regulate cortisol levels. Oily fish is a rich source of EPA and DHA so increase salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring and anchovies where you can! Other good fats include extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, coconut oil and avocado.
#3. Eat the rainbow for more vitamin C
The stress response uses up a lot of vitamin C therefore it’s important to continually top up your levels. Vitamin C cannot be stored in the body, therefore it’s important to eat vitamin C rich foods daily! The largest stores of vitamin C are in your adrenal glands, which suggests it is a critical nutrient for healthy adrenal glands and a healthy stress response. Eating the rainbow is a great way to ensure you are eating good levels of vitamin C. The deep and bright green, red, orange, yellow, purple, brown/white vegetables and fruits are rich in vitamin C. It’s particularly rich in berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, blueberries), broccoli, kiwi fruit, red bell peppers, dark green leafy vegetables and citrus fruit.
#4. Up the magnesium
The body uses up a lot of magnesium in response to stress, therefore it’s important to continually replenish your stores.
Magnesium helps to support the nervous system and helps the body to deal with stress. It relaxes muscles and calms the brain. It has been shown to block the activity of more stimulating brain chemicals and bind to calming receptors in the brain, bringing about a more peaceful, relaxed state.
Good sources of magnesium include whole grains such as oats and buckwheat, almonds, cashews and pecans, black beans and other beans and dark leafy green vegetables. If you would like to supplement magnesium, the glycinate form has been well-researched for its calming effects on the nervous system.
#5. Get your B vitamins, especially B5
Vitamin B5, also known as Pantothenic acid, is one of eight B vitamins and it plays a critical role in a healthy stress response and adrenal function, including helping to make cortisol when needed, produce energy, balance blood sugar and regulate blood pressure.
Vitamin B-rich foods include eggs, salmon, liver, whole grains, mushrooms, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
#6. Weave some simple stress management practices into your days
Remember, we can’t avoid modern day stress but we can perhaps start to look at some ways we can reduce our own stress load. Once you’ve done that, you can start to incorporate some simple stress management practices into your days to help reduce the stress response, calm your body and mind and help you feel and cope much better.
Various habits have been shown to reduce stress-induced cortisol levels plus support the manufacture of feel good chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins that relieve stress.
Here are some of our favourite stress-relieving and resilience building habits:
- Walking in nature/green space
- Mindful movement and breathing such as Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Pilates.
- Simple breathing exercises such as the 4:6 or 4-7-8 techniques or following guided meditations e.g., Calm, Headspace or Insight Timer apps.
- Writing down or saying in your head some things you are grateful for today
- Hugs with loved ones and pets
- Listening to music you love
- Relaxing in a bath with Epsom salts and lavender
- Moderate resistance or weight bearing exercises
- Gentle cardio such as swimming, walking, jogging and cycling
3, 5, 10 or 20 minutes of some of the above each day can have a powerful positive impact on your health and overall sense of wellbeing and happiness. Which of these can you start to weave in here and there throughout your day?
We hope the information and the tips we have provided in this blog can help you go forth and better manage stress and enjoy your day to day life this Stress Awareness Day. Stress isn't going anywhere, but we have the power to support our body each day, via our diet and lifestyle habits, to increase our resilience and support better wellbeing, physically and mentally.