Supporting Stress through Nutrition

As a society of time poor individuals, we tend to use the term “stress” both fleetingly and frequently. Most of us seemingly accept that we spend a large part of our time feeling “a bit stressed out”. We have stressful work lives, home lives; even our social lives or lack of them can be stressful! And unfortunately whilst we are all familiar with how stress can make us feel, what we aren’t always so conscious of is the physical impact of stress, and the ways in which it can detrimentally affect our long term health. Stress can contribute to insomnia, weight gain, digestive problems, panic attacks, depression, chronic fatigue and frequent infections, and has also worryingly been linked with cancer and cardiovascular disease. Stress is believed to be behind 70% of visits to doctors, and may contribute to as many as 85% of serious illnesses.

So what happens in our bodies when we are under stress?

The type of stress we endure in our everyday lives is what is known as “chronic stress”. This may be a result of intense pressure at work, family arguments, break ups, bereavement, financial problems, too little sleep or illness- just to name a few. To cope with this, our body’s adrenal glands, located on top of our kidneys, secrete our stress hormones, the main of which is called cortisol. Cortisol is essential for life – it gets us up in the morning, keeps us going throughout the day, and allows our bodies to deal with the everyday stressors it has to encounter. However when we are under chronic stress, the adrenal glands can become overworked, and this over time can lead to serious health consequences.

How can we support our body through stress?

When our bodies are under stress, the best thing we can do is to support our adrenal glands, and this we can do through diet. The cornerstone of adrenal support is regular eating, as skipping meals and going for long periods of time without food puts intense pressure on these overworked glands. Caffeine puts a further strain on the adrenals by causing them to become over-stimulated, so missing breakfast and having a coffee instead (hands up, who’s guilty?!) is strongly discouraged. If I were to give one piece of dietary advice to those under stress it would be to always eat a good, nutritious breakfast.

When we’re stressed, we often crave and seek out the foods and drinks that are going to give us that instant pick me up. Namely coffee, chocolate and wine- pick your poison! As it turns out, these are the complete opposite of what our body actually needs, and can all be extremely detrimental to the health of the adrenal glands. Take wine for example; not only does it put more pressure on overworked adrenal glands, but the process of metabolizing the alcohol actually further depletes the body of the same nutrients that stress depletes.

So what are these nutrients, and should we be nourishing our bodies with them when stressed?

The answer is yes!

Vitamin C80% of the vitamin C used in your body is used by your adrenal glands, and excessive stress can deplete the body’s vitamin C stores. Take a vitamin C supplement, and get it through food by eating plenty of green leafy vegetables, berries, citrus fruits and parsley. 

Magnesium crucial for the functioning of the adrenal glands and low levels can also manifest as other symptoms such as poor sleep, intense chocolate cravings and muscle cramps. You can get magnesium through diet in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.

B vitamins – these are found in nuts, seeds, pulses, beans and wholegrains, and can also be taken in a supplement form as a B complex.

Stress may be an inevitable part of life but we don’t need to let it impact on our health. Some wise yet simple dietary choices really can make a significant difference to our armory when we go into battle with life’s many stressors.  


Author Bio:

Naomi Mead is a passionate nutritional therapist with a particular interest in weight management, female health, sports nutrition and digestive disorders. She is the co-founder of Food First and also contributes on Nutrition Expert.

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