December 19, 2018 3 min read
By Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD
Stressed spelled backwards is desserts. Coincidence? Perhaps.
In addition to the emotional roller coaster that stress can put you on, stress also takes a physical toll. Piled up emotions can trigger a series of biochemical reactions that can weaken the immune system and lead to a plethora of physical symptoms, including weight gain, headaches, body pain, fatigue and insomnia. Over time, stress triggers inflammation, putting you at risk for chronic disease.
Most of us are trying to manage our stress, but in less than healthy ways. Food is often used as a means of self-soothing. (Ever eaten a pint of ice cream after a breakup?)
To make matters worse, the “stress hormone” cortisol increases appetite and triggers cravings for fat and sugar — making those doughnuts in the break room irresistible during a stressful day at work. These comfort foods have the added effect of providing the brain with a boost of serotonin, also known as the “happy” neurotransmitter. The combination of elevated hormones and stress leads to less than ideal food choices.
But all is not lost; there are many things you can do to mitigate the effects of stress and help you maintain your health.
Many foods have stress-busting properties. Carbohydrates help the brain make the mood-elevating chemical serotonin, but complex carbohydrates also keep the supply of serotonin and your energy levels steady. Good complex carbohydrate choices include whole grain bread, whole grain crackers, oatmeal and brown rice.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and tuna can prevent spikes in stress hormones and may protect against depression and anxiety. Nuts and seeds are other good sources of healthy fats. Eating a handful of nuts or seeds daily can help diminish the effects of stress and chronic inflammation on the body.
Considering 95% of the “feel-good” chemical serotonin receptors are found in the gut, studies are beginning to find that probiotics may be an effective treatment option for managing psychological stress.
Exercise is a powerful anti-stress activity. The psychological benefits of exercise are twofold: Exercise reduces the body’s stress hormones, including cortisol, and increases feel-good chemicals, like serotonin and endorphins, to help boost mood. Exercise doesn’t have to mean sweating profusely at the gym. A simple, relaxing 20-minute walk can help clear your mind and reduce stress.
Sleep is a great stress reducer. Stress can impact the quality and quantity of sleep by altering your sleep cycles. Fatigue can also decrease patience and increase irritability, which can intensify overall stress.
A lack of sleep can cause stress and stress can disrupt our sleep.So how does one avoid this vicious cycle? Practice sleep hygiene. Spend some time “winding down” before bed by replacing screen time with reading, listening to music or meditating one hour to 30 minutes before going to sleep.
Aim to consistently sleep seven to eight hours per night. If you get less than seven hours of sleep per night, you risk missing out on the final REM (deep sleep) cycle, which takes place around the six-hour mark. Losing this REM cycle can lead to increased hunger, carbohydrate cravings and more stress.
It may be tempting to avoid social situations during stressful times. An outing with friends, picking up the phone, or attending an event feels like a daunting task piled onto an endless to-do list. But reaching out for social support can alleviate the damaging role stress plays on our mental and physical health. Social support can improve self-esteem and our ability to cope.
Practicing mindfulness (or being in the moment) helps us to control the persistent, unproductive thoughts that tend to stress us out. Research shows that controlling our breath can decrease cortisol levels in the body. Mindful meditation can help ease a variety of psychological stressors, including depression, anxiety and generalized stress.
Much like death and taxes, stress is a guarantee in life. However, it doesn’t have to unduly impact the quality of your life. Learning to manage stress is important to your emotional and physical health, and has the added bonus of being an empowering experience.
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