Understanding, Managing, and Overcoming Stress
Written by Moynul Hazari
Stress can filter in from various parts of life, from the workplace as well as personal relationships. It can also have an impact on your health, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. These health issues, when allowed to build up over time, could manifest themselves as anxiety and depression, hormonal problems, difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure, heart disease and much more.
What and how you eat can be affected by stress and your ability to cope with stress can be affected by your nutrient status. Also, there may be certain nutrients that can improve your body’s ability to cope with stress. Let’s look at each of these factors in turn, starting with nutrients that may help you cope with stress.
NUTRIENTS THAT CAN HELP YOU COPE WITH STRESS
Ashwagandha, which is also known as Indian ginseng, provides phytonutrients which benefit those going through stressful periods. In a 2019 study, which was a 60 day, randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled study, the stress relieving, and pharmacological activity of Ashwagandha extract was investigated in stressed, healthy adults. All participants completed the trial and there was a reduction in both anxiety and stress. Supplementation with ashwagandha was also associated with a greater reduction in morning cortisol. This is significant because studies have found a direct link between chronic stress and increases in morning cortisol. (Ref: Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Sep;98(37):e17186.)
Vitamin C is needed for more than 40 functions in the body, including the manufacture of neurotransmitters, and your adrenal glands require large amounts of it, especially if you are stressed. Foods rich in vitamin C include peppers, kiwi fruit, citrus fruits, kale, broccoli, and berries. In one double blind study, published January 2015, in the Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences it was reported that vitamin C reduced stress levels in participants taking 500 mg per day, and pointed to possible anxiety prevention. (Ref: e Oliveira IJ, de Souza VV, Motta V, Da-Silva SL. Effects of Oral Vitamin C Supplementation on Anxiety in Students: A Double-Blind, Randomised, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Pak J Biol Sci. 2015 Jan;18(1):11-8.)
Bacteria in the gut produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are the main source of nutrition for cells in this region of the body. Foods such as grains, pulses and vegetables, contain high levels of fibres and will stimulate the production of these SCFAs. A study conducted by scientists at APC Microbiome Ireland at University College Cork and Teagasc Food Research Centre found that there was decreased levels of stress and anxiety-like behaviour when SCFAs were introduced. (Ref: Wouw, Marcel van de, et al. “Short‐Chain Fatty Acids: Microbial metabolites That Alleviate Stress‐Induced Brain‐Gut Axis Alterations.” The Journal of Physiology, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP276431.)
DEFICIENCIES THAT REDUCE YOUR BODY’S ABILITY TO COPE WITH STRESS
Today, many of us eat far less fish than we did 60 years ago, so our intake of omega 3 has fallen. Meanwhile, consumption of omega 6 fats, which are found in various oil-based spreads, pre-packaged meals, convenience, foods, and cooking, oils, has risen, leading to many people’s diets, now, being too high in omega 6, yet too low in omega 3. This imbalance creates conditions that can trigger depression and anxiety.
In general, B vitamins help with energy production. Therefore, it's important to make sure you're getting all of your B vitamins. However, when it comes to stress, a lack of Vitamin B1 is one of the main vitamin deficiencies that cause anxiety. You need to get enough B6 in order to appropriately produce serotonin and dopamine. B6 also aids your neurotransmitters to ensure a balanced mood and an appropriate sleep schedule. Vitamin B12 helps regulate mood-boosters like serotonin and dopamine. It also helps manage stress hormones such as noradrenalin.
Vitamin D is a key player in serotonin activity. Serotonin influences mood and sleep, as well as appetite and digestion. If you are deficient in Vitamin D, you may experience fatigue or increased anxiety levels.
DIETARY CHANGES TO HELP YOU COPE WITH STRESS
Caffeine leads to increase blood pressure and may make you more anxious, especially during times of stress. Caffeine can also interfere with sleep, getting sufficient sleep, allows your body to better handle stress when it arises.
If you know that a stressful or busy time is approaching prepare by stocking up on quick, healthy snacks. These could include those high in protein and or fibre, some examples, with the almond butter, and an apple, peanut butter on whole-grain toast, carrots with hummus, or yogurt with fresh fruit.
When we “stress-eat,” we eat quickly without noticing what or how much we’re eating. Mindful eating practices counteract stress by encouraging deep breaths, making thoughtful food choices, focusing attention on the meal, and chewing food slowly and thoroughly. This increases enjoyment of the meal and improves digestion. Mindful eating can also help us identify when we are eating not because of physiological hunger but because emotional hunger, which may lead us to eat more as a coping mechanism.
In conclusion, stress can be alleviated by:
- focusing in the nutrients that help your body cope with stress, namely ashwagandha, vitamin C and fibre
- ensuring any nutrient deficiencies are made up for through diet and/or supplementation, namely omega 3, B vitamins and vitamin D
- reducing caffeine, healthy snacking and eating mindfully
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