Beat stress with a healthy diet
Stress is an integral part of life and can arise from a variety of causes, such as work pressure, interpersonal relationships, financial problems, or life changes. When faced with stress, our bodies respond to these challenges in different ways.
During periods of increased stress, the body depletes its stores of certain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Research has shown that even in individuals with a proper diet, the levels of certain vitamins and minerals in the blood can decrease by up to 33 percent at the end of a stressful and demanding day.
What is stress?
Stress is a response to physical, mental, social, or emotional stimuli. Today, most of our stress is not caused by the physical stress experienced by our ancestors, but the body still responds in the same way, initiating a fight-or-flight response to prepare for imminent danger.
This fight-or-flight response causes our adrenal glands to release adrenaline and other stress hormones. Within seconds, these hormones trigger various actions, such as pumping blood and oxygen rapidly to our cells, increasing heart rate, and enhancing mental alertness.
While this may sound beneficial, in today's fast-paced life, stress can become chronic. Chronic stress depletes our nutrient and energy reserves, leading to overall exhaustion.
Although "good" stress leads to the release of adrenaline, providing a surge of energy, continued stress releases another hormone called cortisol. If stress persists, the nervous system continues to trigger bodily reactions, which eventually result in inflammation and cell damage.
Stress hormones, including cortisol, disrupt the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems, sleep, libido, and the production of essential hormones. They can cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, excess belly fat, and inflammation. Our mental capabilities can be impaired or disrupted, leading to fear, negative beliefs, or anxiety.
Physical signs of stress
Stress is a part of life and can arise from various causes such as work pressure, interpersonal relationships, financial difficulties, or life changes. When faced with stress, our bodies respond to these challenges in different ways.
One way stress manifests is through physical signs of stress. These signs are a response to the activation of the stress response in the body, involving both physiological and psychological changes. While these physical signs of stress may vary from person to person, there are some common physical symptoms often observed in individuals experiencing stress.
- Muscle tension: Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response in the body, which can result in muscle tension. This can be due to increased activity in the nervous system, affecting muscle tension. Common symptoms include tight shoulders, neck pain, back spasms, or a feeling of stiffness throughout the body.
- Headaches: Stress can contribute to the occurrence of tension headaches. These typically manifest as a feeling of pressure or tightness around the forehead, temples, or back of the head. Headaches are often a result of muscle contractions in the head and neck, increased tension, or the influence of stress hormones.
- Sleep disturbances: Stress can cause sleep problems. Individuals experiencing stress may face insomnia, which includes difficulties falling asleep, frequent nighttime awakenings, or early morning awakenings. Stress affects the balance of hormones and can disrupt sleep patterns.
- Digestive issues: Stress can have an impact on the digestive system. In some people, it may manifest as abdominal pain, stomach tension, cramps, or discomfort. Common digestive problems associated with stress include diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or increased gas formation.
- Rapid heartbeat: The feeling of stress can cause an increased heart rate or palpitations. This is a result of the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, which affects heart rate. Rapid heartbeat may also be accompanied by feelings of anxiety or fear.
- Increased sweating: Stress can lead to increased sweating, as it is one of the body's ways of responding to stressful situations. Intense sweating, particularly in the palms, may also occur during feelings of anxiety or tension.
Diet to help combat stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but we can manage it by incorporating daily nutritional support. The main rule for a stress-reducing diet is to avoid foods and beverages that strongly affect mood. Therefore, it is important to abstain from coffee, sugary foods, alcohol, overly salty and spicy foods, and simple carbohydrates during stressful periods.
For the proper functioning of the nervous and cardiovascular systems, consume foods rich in B vitamins and calcium, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, almonds, beans, whole grains, dark leafy greens, seaweed, meat, and fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, eggs, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseeds can prevent an increase in stress hormones. Include protein (nuts, seeds, fatty fish, meat, eggs, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa) with every meal to balance blood sugar levels and promote a stress response.
A proper diet can help mitigate stress, if not prevent it altogether. Therefore, in weeks that we know will be more demanding, we should plan ahead and choose meals that will support our bodies.
Tips for managing stress
The best advice for calming our minds and managing stress is to "notice what is happening." Recognize when your schedule becomes overwhelming and when your body needs a break.
1. Regular exercise
Regular exercise is one of the recommended ways to reduce stress. During exercise, the brain releases natural substances called endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and contribute to better sleep. Regular physical activity can also help lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
2. Meditation or deep breathing techniques
Rapid, shallow breathing and racing thoughts are responses to stress. Therefore, practice slow, deep breathing to reduce muscle tension, lower heart rate, and calm your thoughts. Whenever you feel stressed, breathe slowly and focus on each inhale and exhale.
This simple action triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help with relaxation. For some guidance, try a brief mindful breathing exercise. Additionally, some practices like yoga and tai chi emphasize deep breathing and mental focus.
3. Take time for yourself
Occasional breaks from work pressures can work wonders in reducing stress, increasing productivity, and reducing the risk of physical and mental illnesses associated with burnout. Therefore, try to dedicate at least an hour each day to yourself.
During this hour, you can engage in activities such as reading a book, exercising, or simply relaxing with your favorite pastime.
4. Good and quality sleep
Stress can create an increased sense of wakefulness, delaying the onset of sleep and causing disruptions throughout the night. This can prevent entering deeper stages of sleep, during which the body repairs and develops tissues and supports a healthy immune system.
In particular, the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep helps regulate mood and memory. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night by slowing down before bedtime for 30 minutes. You can also improve sleep quality by managing stress with the other tips mentioned above.