Eating for stress
Stress can cause us to make poor nutritional choices. And when we are stressed, we need to fuel our body differently. For instance, did you know that vitamin C helps reduce cortisol and build the immune system, two issues during stress? Magnesium is another important nutrient for stress, since it helps the body relax as much as a prescription muscle relaxant. Vitamin B complex is also important because the body uses more B vitamins when stressed.
There are many factors in nutrition during stressful times. Smokers, drinkers and caffeine users are well aware that they tend to use more of these substances when stressed, either purely as an oral habit or to stay awake longer. But these substances cause increased nutrient need and the calories in alcohol or coffee drinks can reduce desire for healthful foods. Try green tea instead of coffee sometimes.
Stress is caused by having too much to do, not enough time, or conflicting priorities. But most often it is our beliefs about these issues that cause the stress. If we didn't believe these things were a problem, we would not feel the stress. We must support our bodies with the nutrients they need at the proper time and in the proper amounts.
Easy food can be a poor choice
But the lack of time causes us to choose foods that are quick, easy and available, or not to eat at all when busy. The stress hormone cortisol can cause us to crave fat, sugar and salt, which are readily available in things like chips, cookies and fast food. Stress can also cause us to forget to hydrate.
Does it really matter what we eat? Yes. Eating and drinking poorly can cause all of these physical manifestations:
- Eating too few calories can cause blood sugar dips, which lead to anxiety, mood swings, fatigue and poor concentration. It can cause diabetes over time, one of the top three most serious lifestyle diseases.
- Eating too many calories causes overweight and sluggishness, which make focus and work more difficult. It is also a major cause of diabetes and heart disease.
- Food sensitivities can cause digestive and cognitive problems. Digestion issues mean that you are not effectively using your nutrients, the building blocks of a healthy body. Food sensitivities can also cause sleepiness and lack of focus.
- The brain is composed of about 60 percent fat and needs essential fatty acids, most notably Omega 3s found in fish and fish oil capsules, to rebuild and operate. Omega 6 is also necessary, and these fats cannot be manufactured by the body, so they must be taken through food or supplementation.
- Dehydration has serious effects on the brain. The body needs plenty of water to function effectively and the brain is no exception. One reason is that the brain is encased in a fluid sac for its protection. Dehydration actually causes this fluid to be depleted, causing the brain to bump into the inside of the skull, according to John Higgins, M.D., cardiologist.
How to best fuel your body
While it's not possible to have a stress-free life, there are ways you can lessen the effect of stress on your nutrition and health. Eat on a schedule. Even if you don't feel like breakfast, a piece of fruit with toast will get you going. Planning meals does take time but if you plan seven dinners each week, you can repeat the same ones every week. This reduces the number of different foods you need to buy. You can also cook in bulk and freeze portions for later. The reason these strategies are helpful is that you will likely eat more healthfully if you cook at home.
Make a shopping list for those foods you are going to cook at home. You can also stock up on natural healthy snacks, such as carrots, celery, hummus, edamame, nuts, or cheese. Make sure to eat on a schedule to keep your energy up.
Michael Pollan wrote a book called "In Defense of Food." His main premise is comprised of three important points: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. What this means is that it's best to eat real food, food our great-grandparents would have recognized, rather than processed foods such as Spam, margarine, or fruit jerky. Single ingredient foods are by their nature unprocessed or minimally processed. Try apples, walnuts, rice, chicken, cooked plain or with single ingredient foods as seasonings–garlic, onion, or pepper.
One easy way to cook is by making a large pot of chicken and vegetable bean soup every weekend. Soup provides a lot of water, nutrients from vegetables and protein, and can be lower in calories than many foods. It can be frozen in serving sizes and can be reheated easily. You can even use a Crockpot on your desk at work to thaw and heat soup or cook small portions of other meals.
These tips should help you to be more resilient by optimizing this most basic need: nutrition.