We are all faced with stress at some point in our life. Stress can be related to work, finance, social and family issues or simply feeling there is not enough time in the day.
When you are faced with stress, your body responds by producing a hormone – cortisol. Cortisol prepares your body for a “fight or flight” response by providing glucose for energy. Cortisol also narrows arteries while a chemical, epinephrine is released and increases heart rate. Normally you address and resolve the stressful situation, which makes your hormone levels return to normal. However, in recent times, we are constantly stressed and live in a fast paced environment- this confuses our hormones and they often remain elevated.
Stress can lead to positive effects in the short term, such as increased awareness to deal with the stressful situations. However, when stress continues it can lead to a loss of sleep, chronic pain, depressed mood and social withdrawal. Longer term stress is also associated with inflammation that can make us more likely to get infections, chronic diseases and to age more quickly.
Now that we understand that stress is not healthy – what can we do to combat the negative effects of stress? There are simple lifestyle tips to combat stress:
- Relax and sleep for about 8 hours every night
- Exercise as much as you can
- Practice deep breathing techniques
- Eat a healthy balanced diet
These simple lifestyle tips are described in more detail below.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. It is important to get consistent sleep each night because it will regulate mood, improve memory and is a critical factor in overall health, weight and energy level.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- All adults should avoid inactivity
- Some physical activity is better than none
- Adults should do 2.5 to 5 hours a week of moderate-intensity or 2.5 hours a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity
- Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities 2 or more days a week, for additional health benefits
- Older adults should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow and should add activities to improve balance.
Support Yourself During Stress
- Gain or evaluate perspective. Sometimes how you look at things can greatly increase or reduce their stressfulness
- Use time management techniques to avoid becoming swamped.
- Be sure to have an emotional outlet. Talk to others about your stress and seek professional help if needed.
- Make time for fun and other pleasurable activities
- Learn relaxation exercises or meditation
General Dietary Advice
Eat three or more small to medium meals on a regular schedule with good nutrition, including fruits and veggies, to maintain a balanced energy and coping level.
There are some foods that cause more inflammation and should be avoided. Foods to avoid include fried foods, soda, refined carbohydrates (white bread, sweets), caffeine, excess alcohol and processed meats.
There are other foods that help us fight inflammation and we want to add these foods to our diets. These include fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, and mackerel), nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts), olive oil, fruits and vegetables (e.g. leafy greens and tomatoes) and foods with fiber.
It is important to know that stress makes our body react to food differently. The stress hormone, cortisol, makes you crave foods with a lot of fat and sugar. Even though we know what foods are healthy for us, under stress we may:
- Desire convenience foods/fast foods
- Forget/skip meals
- Increase coffee intake
- Follow fad diets
- Constantly pick at foods
- Eat the wrong food types
In addition, when our body is stressed we have a greater than usual need for certain nutrients including protein, B-vitamins, magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin C. These nutrients and others that may be important can be found in a nutrient rich diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, for example:
- B vitamins: Found in many foods such as cereal, fish, meat
- Protein: Meat, eggs, seeds, nuts etc.
- Vitamin A: Cheese, eggs, fish with oil, milk etc. or foods with carotene (carrots)
- Vitamin C: Fruits (apple, banana, orange etc.)
- Magnesium: Green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, collards), fish, meat and dairy products
Many people will hear that “Vitamins help reduce stress.” The next thing they do is go and buy some vitamin and mineral pills. However, the best thing you can do is learn to follow a healthy diet and get the nutrients you need from food.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans list three major goals:
- Balance calories with physical activity to manage weight
- Consume more of certain foods and nutrients such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood
- Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and fewer refined grains
The Dietary Guidelines have used a sample plate to help you eat better (choosemyplate.gov).
- Vegetables and fruit- ½ of your plate
- Whole grains- ¼ of your plate
- Fat free or low-fat (1% fat) milk or dairy products (or other calcium rich food) at each meal
- Lean protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, nuts and/or seeds) at meals, portion size should be the same size as a deck of cards
In summary, there are many health problems that are clearly related to stress. Prevention is possible through a healthy diet and exercise. To reduce stress and work to prevent disease, try to:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Eat more lean protein
- Choose whole grain products
- Increase exercise to 5 hours a week
- Get adequate sleep (about 8 hours) each night
– Jeri W. Nieves, PhD