The Science Behind Stress
How our diets might not be helping when it comes to modern day stress and anxiety.
What is stress?
When we encounter something stressful, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to prepare it for a physical response. This 'fight or flight' reaction may have been necessary millions of years ago when we faced life-or-death situations regularly, but in modern times these situations are fairly rare and these physiological responses can affect our health negatively.
Stress and digestion
When our body consciously or subconsciously perceives danger, physiological changes trigger the release of hormones to increase heart rate and blood pressure and deliver more oxygen and glucose to important muscles, thus preparing the body to fight or flee the imposing danger. By doing so, our body has prioritised certain functions of the body over others and leaves less urgent functions such as digestion on stand-by. A prolonged spell of stressful situations can affect digestion negatively leaving it in a state of constant flux and can lead to a whole host of health problems.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center in the brain. This part of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure and the heartbeat. The autonomic nervous system has two components; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand acts to calm the body, it promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
Foods that trigger the stress response
Caffeine - Caffeine is a chemical found mostly in tea, coffee and some soft drinks and it reduces our ability to deal with stress. This is because it acts as a stimulant, causing the adrenal glands to release more hormones like cortisol (which are already high due to the strain our bodies are under). High levels of caffeine also contribute to insomnia and nervousness, which are intrinsically linked to stress.
Caffeine consumption can also deplete levels of magnesium (needed for energy production) and metabolism-boosting B vitamins from the body. Substituting coffees and teas for herbal varieties can help reduce your caffeine consumption, and it helps to be mindful of caffeine content in foods such as chocolate.
There are also positive side-effects to drinking coffee of course, if you're looking for a boost before heading to the gym for example then a shot of the black stuff compares to no other and is more of a natural way to get your juices flowing than a pre-workout drink.
Refined High GI Foods - Refined foods which are high on the glycemic index scale (GI) such as white bread, white rice and sugary baked goods have been aggressively processed, stripping away the fibre-rich layers leaving them void of some of the nutritional qualities of whole grain foods. These foods are easily absorbed during digestion and quickly turned into glucose in the body leading to a spike in blood glucose levels and cortisol - the stress hormone. This can negatively affect your health and leads to overeating when your blood sugar levels crash shortly afterwards.
Think of this as the 'sugar high' you get from eating sugary foods. The high is short-lived and usually leaves you feeling groggy not long afterwards. Stick to eating whole foods with a low GI load, these foods will leave you feeling more satiated, giving you more energy and will reduce your stress levels.
Alcohol - Alcohol is technically a depressant, which means it acts as a mild sedative, making us temporarily calm. But if we drink in excess, alcohol can actually exacerbate anxiety for those who already experience it. So, what is excessive drinking? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines moderate drinking as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
If you think alcohol might be feeding your stress and anxiety try to cut back on your consumption by avoiding triggers and substitute for other activities like exercise for example. If you've had a tough day at work - head to the gym, go for a run or practice some breathing exercises before reaching for the bottle as these coping mechanisms are more beneficial and will help you to relax without any nasty side-effects (bye hangover!).
Fried Foods - Diets rich in fried foods can cause decreased energy and sedentary lifestyles that can contribute to stress. They can cause you to feel sluggish and fatigued and affect digestion causing you to be less likely to stay active.
According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, high consumption of processed fats can increase the risk of depression. Researchers found that people with diets high in processed fats had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate whole foods. Furthermore, processed foods contain high levels of hydrogenated or oxidised fats which can block the production of essential fats needed to protect the cell membrane and nerve health.
Swap fried foods for more fruit and veggies and grill or roast foods instead of frying. This will improve your energy levels which will help reduce stress and anxiety.
Trans fatty acids = nope
Chronic low-level stress keeps the the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands and the pituary gland in a state of constant flux. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.
Persistent epinephrine (adrenaline) surges from the adrenal glands can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body's energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain. For example, cortisol increases appetite, so that people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases storage of unused nutrients as fat.
Ways to combat stress
There are several ways to combat stress, these include but are not limited to;
This can be anything that enables you to relax, take a breath and calm your nervous system. Mindfulness; Meditation; Breathwork; Listening to music/podcasts/white noise; Reading are some examples.
Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and is a great way to expend excess energy that would otherwise fester and cause a negative response in the body.
As we've discussed, diet plays a huge role in the body when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety. Stick to eating a healthy balanced diet, eat plenty veggies, avoid sugary snacks, limit alcohol intake and use caffeine to your advantage instead of it being a fan to the flame.
As humans we rely on social interactions for support and wellbeing. Social contact with others helps us deal with stressful events and cope with negative self-talk that can lead to a spiral of stress and anxiety.
Reaching out to friends and family when you're struggling with stress or anxiety can really help to bring things into focus, deal with them and think more positively.