When you are more stressed than your best, there’s something natural to consider. Esther Mills-Roberts explains…
Stress is a normal part of our lives, an evolutionary mechanism to tell us about things that aren’t so good for us, to allow our body to kick-start processes to realign and for us to learn from our experiences. But, from time to time, the level of stress that loads our lives is more than what is deemed as healthy – so what might help?
When something stressful comes into our lives our bodies prepare for it through a physical response, such as increased heart rate (think of the effect of adrenaline on the heart), heavy breathing and movement of blood and nutrients away from the core of the body to the extremities such as the arms and legs, in preparation for a fight. When this happens we can feel anxious, have mood swings, be agitated, over-worry, feel clammy, have tense muscles (and aches and pains), have a poor appetite or eat too much, lack sleep, feel sick or want to withdraw to run away from it all.
Simple Food Steps
When stress presents, one of the first things to fly out of the window is the desire to prepare and cook healthy foods, but maintaining good levels of nutrients is important. Stress places an extra burden on all nutrients; and notably antioxidant nutrients. Research studies have also shown us that those who aren’t interested in foods have an increased likelihood that they will be deficient in iron, B vitamins and vitamin D.
One simple way to focus is to make sure you have three different types of fruit and three different types of vegetables a day, with some lean protein. It’s highly likely that you’re already eating carbohydrates when you snack anyway – crisps, cake and biscuits for example – but swap these for nuts and seeds and your intakes of good omega fats will increase, which is great for your skin, heart, immune function, stamina and digestive health.
When you’re feeling stressed and perhaps lacking energy, it’s easy to reach for the quick feel-good foods. Sugar is the obvious example, where the brain follows a reward system that makes you crave it more, or caffeine which makes you feel temporarily alert. But in high quantities, caffeine has been found to increase insomnia, cause a feeling of restlessness and give fast heart rate, so why not consider some healthier alternatives? Try either decaf or replacers based on barley or chicory. There are plenty of low caffeine teas to choose from too, whether conventional black teas, green teas or herbals.
For omega-3s, which help to manage inflammatory processes in the body and are vital for overall wellbeing, there three easy steps you can take to increase intakes: the first is to increase intakes of oily fish, the second is to eat nuts and seeds and the third is to take a supplement of fish oils. High strength cod liver oil is great for those whose vitamin D intakes might be low (you can get this tested), or fish oils for people who are taking a single supplement of vitamin D or have it included in another formulation. Fish Oil supplements are from the fleshy, omega-3-rich parts of the fish which contain the EPA and DHA essential fatty acids. Being well-known anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body, EPA and DHA can help to manage the systemic (whole-body) effects of stress.
Stress affects the digestive tract significantly over time. For a start, stress can affect our appetite, with us wanting to eat more to give the brain a serotonin (feel good chemical) boost, or less because we just can’t face preparing or eating food. But there’s a more basic physiological response where our central nervous system reduces the activity of the digestive tract, restricting blood flow and slowing digestive function. These factors can lead to indigestion.
Don’t underestimate the power of chewing to start the digestive process. A digestive enzyme supplement is wonderful at helping the body with the breakdown and digestion of food. Many include betaine hydrochloride, which maximises breakdown in the stomach. In fact, many functional medicine practitioners recognise that low stomach acid can result in non-digestion of foods, leading to symptoms of indigestion, and because of this, many recommend betaine hydrochloride to see whether this might help.
Stress can greatly affect bowel movement frequency – either too fast (diarrhoea) or too slow (constipation). The first results from cramping in the gut, the second from the slowing down of gut muscle contraction. Of course, all this digestive upset and wreak havoc on your gut microbiome. A wide-spectrum supplement of probiotic bacteria can help to maintain the health of your upper and lower digestive tracts.
About Esther Mills-Roberts
Esther Mills-Roberts is a degree-trained nutritional biochemist and registered nutritionist. She is the founder of www.allaboutnutrition.co.uk.
Esther studied nutrition and biochemistry at Nottingham University and worked for a number of nutritional supplement companies before eventually setting up as a consultant on nutritional marketing, PR, quality standard, labelling and new product development.
She has also lectured and educated many about the science of nutrition, written for a number of health titles, written her own books and has featured on both TV and radio. Esther is a member of the Guild of Health Writers, London.