Ten Ways To Nourish Yourself Under Stress
1. Give Your Digestion A Rest
Since the feeling of stress is directly linked to our physical stance in the world, the body reacts using hormones which affect our behavior in various ways. Because survival is our very first instinct, the brain releases hormones such as adrenaline in response to an immediate stressor in our environment. Increased adrenaline levels cause the body to prioritize the stressor, recognizing it as an immediate threat. This knocks digestion off the list of priorities temporarily, which explains why some feel a lack of appetite or an inability to eat in response to anxiety. Some even feel nauseous. This is definitely something I lean towards when I'm feeling anxious, and it is a sign that your food won't be optimally digested during this time. Digestion can use up to 80% of the body's energy, so it's not surprising that this huge task would need to be set aside during the 'fight or flight' response. Instead of neglecting food altogether though, it's important to eat to avoid fatigue and headache which can cause you to crash. Likewise, when adrenaline subsides, your body will let you know you're under nourished, which as we know can lead to poor food decisions.
Opt for mainly cooked vegetables rather than raw. This is because raw vegetables are difficult to digest, and take longer due to their increased cellulose and starch content. Steaming or baking vegetables, even lightly, will denature proteins, unwinding them, allowing enzymes - which break down all of our food - to more easily break down proteins into amino acids. Cooking vegetables will also physically soften them, which takes less energy to chew and swallow.
Have easy-to-prepare meals. You may not have the time or desire to cook from scratch if your appetite isn't there, so have easy ingredients on hand, like whole grain bread for sandwiches, steamed then frozen veggies for smoothies, or soups. Another ideal option is to keep frozen batch-cooked meals in your freezer that you can simply warm up. Some examples of batch cooking meals are: falafels or these raw truffles.
Eat small portions. If your appetite is low, this may be intuitive. Larger meals will take more time and energy for the body to digest.
Cut out refined sugar. Refined sugar intake can cause excess glucose in the blood stream which is counterproductive under acute stress.
Under prolonged periods of stress, however, another secreted hormone called cortisol can cause a negative feedback loop of undesirable consequences. Because cortisol plays a role in dilating our blood vessels, promoting glucose reuptake into the blood, and inhibiting insulin secretion in order to keep glucose ready for a potential threat, its prolonged secretion can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, increased appetite, and high blood pressure. We have to be aware that our brain can't tell the difference between a threat to our survival, and a threat to our relationships, work or otherwise. Therefore this is its best response to stress. Studies on elevated cortisol levels have also shown that elevated levels for prolonged periods of time (more than a month) is directly correlated with cravings for high fat, high sugar food. Cortisol also relocates fat cells to visceral tissue beneath organs, in the abdomen. Those with excess fat storage in the belly area are probably dealing with elevated cortisol levels.
Now that we know how cortisol affects our insulin response and our fat storage, we can choose more nutrient dense options for comforting foods. Not only do these options prevent glucose from being used up too quickly, leading to a crash, they provide other key nutrients in dealing with stress.
Choose Healthier Comfort Foods
It's certainly fine to occasionally indulge in comfort foods, especially if it's in an act of self love towards yourself. Treating yourself kindly is so important, and it's only natural to crave comforting foods. Where the issue lies, I believe, is:
A. some of the ingredients in comfort foods which lend themselves well to the duties of cortisol, and
B. the reason you choose to eat such foods.
Here's an example of how a few changes to an old favourite can actually help you acclimate to stress:
The Grilled Cheese Sandwich
1 roasted beet, sliced
2 slices of whole grain, sprouted grain, sourdough bread
1 tbsp goats cheese
Preheat oven to 350F. Cut one medium sized beet in half, and brush with coconut oil, and your choice of herbs, salt and pepper. Cook on a sheet lined with parchment paper for 7 minutes, flip, then cook for another 5-7 minutes. Check that the beet can be punctured with a fork (it should be soft), then remove from oven, let cool slightly, and cut into slices.
To assemble: Spread goats cheese on one slice of bread, then line with beet slices. Add spinach, then avocado, followed by the second slice. Spread coconut oil or ghee on either slice, then cook on a skillet until both sides are golden and crunchy.
Choosing a low glycemic carbohydrate (whole grain bread rather than a white, processed bread) allows for glucose to be slowly released into the blood. It's also a good source of most B vitamins which aid in nervous function. Also, to allow for easier digestion, the starchy beet has been baked, making it easier to digest, and honestly it's even more delicious than the classic grilled cheese!
2. Adaptogens for Adrenals
Adaptogens are herbs or roots that, over time, help to balance out hormone levels and promote homeostasis in the body. Most hormone secretion is signaled by the adrenal glands, two small glands above the kidneys. This is where the term adrenal fatigue comes in: prolonged secretion of stress hormones will eventually cause adrenal fatigue, further promoting the secretion of cortisol during times where we don't need it. In some cases, estrogens will even be converted into cortisol which causes an imbalance of the sex hormones, namely in women.
Research has shown that adapotogenic supplements can decrease cortisol levels by physiologically assisting the body in dealing with stress. Adaptogens include ashwagandha, maca root, ginseng, astragalus and rhodiola. Most adaptogens take time to do this, though. Consistent supplementation over a 1-3 month period is often necessary to see any benefit from these herbs, but from first-hand use, I do believe they can play a significant role in stress management.
My personal favourite adaptogen is ashwaghanda. It's very safe to use even if you're on medications, and there have been very little documented adverse reactions to supplementing the root. Maca and ginseng are particularly good for energy levels and sex drive, especially in men.
One of the most important factors in any regimen is adequate water intake. Under acute stress, we're more likely to become dehydrated because most stress hormones work to increase your heart rate and quicken breathing. Stress can be thought of as a light work out that you aren't getting the physical benefits from, but that your body is being taxed physiologically by. Replenishing with pure water often is so important. Drink water away from meals, as water inhibits food digestion by diluting stomach acid, which worsens the environment in the stomach for enzymatic reactions.
Furthermore, try to stay away from too much coffee, or any sugar-filled drinks. Water, herbal and green tea will benefit you more during this time.
4. The B Vitamins
This is a class of vitamins that aid in nervous function and stress management. In fact, in some, a deficiency in one or more of the B vitamins can mimic anxiety or stress. As a group, most of the B vitamins help the body to digest proteins, fats and carbohydrates better, manage blood sugar levels, and help with nerve signaling. They also help to calm the nervous system while still promoting focus and alertness.
Recommended dose: Adults should consider a B complex with active forms of the vitamins (1,2). The B vitamins are very high in whole grains such as rice and quinoa, legumes and beans, eggs, and avocado.
5. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an incredible vitamin. Among so many other things, it helps to clear arterial pathways and protect the lining of blood vessels. Our blood pressure naturally fluctuates throughout the day due to outside stressors. If we are relatively calm, our blood pressure will be on the lower end of the spectrum, whereas if we become flustered by an outside influence, the same stress hormones which play a role in the 'fight or flight' response dilate the blood vessels and increase blood flow, leading to a higher systolic blood pressure reading.
Recommended dose: Adults can supplement with up to 1000 mg of vitamin C at one time. During stressful periods, adults can increase the dosage to 1500 mg split between two times in the day. Research shows that only 1000 mg of vitamin C can be absorbed at one time. Vitamin C is very high in raw fruits and vegetables, and fresh vegetable juices. The acerola berry is among the highest source of vitamin C.
6. Vitamin D
This vitamin is especially deficient during seasons where the bare skin isn't exposed to the UVB rays of the sun. Molecules made of cholesterol in our skin absorb the UVB rays from sunlight and convert them into an active form of vitamin D. Vitamin D is largely made, instead of consumed. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression, and can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression. Recently, it's been studied for its healthy affect on insulin secretion, promoting healthy blood sugar management.
Recommended dose: For adults during winter months: 2,000 to 5,000 IU per day can be supplemented. For times when you can be in the sun for 1-2 hours per day: 1,000 IU may be supplemented if needed. The highest food sources of vitamin D include halibut, cod, salmon, and eggs.
L-theanine is an amino acid, the smallest constituent of a protein. Its highly regarded for its ability to promote GABA, dopamine, and melatonin, three neurotransmitters that our brain responds to as calming. GABA both promotes dopamine production, and reduces serotonin levels. This is a positive thing under periods of stress because dopamine promotes a feeling of calm and well-being without promoting drowsiness or reduced alertness. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter that we begin to make as a response to our circadian rhythm. It aids in a full and restful sleep, which is so important regardless but especially under stress. Sleep health is linked to a myriad of daily functions, and directly influences fat storage, nervous system function, and mood.
Green tea and matcha is notably high in l-theanine. Matcha has a much higher antioxidant and l-theanine concentration than green tea due to its harvesting differences, and the fact that the whole ground leaf is consumed, rather than steeped in hot water. However both will offer the affects of l-theanine.
Recommended use: heat water and mix 1 tbsp pure matcha powder with 1 tsp ashwagandha powder
Magnesium has SO many functions in the human body. t's most known for its calm-inducing properties, but it has many jobs. It activates enzymes (which are crucial to digestion and energy levels), prevents blood clots, guides calcium towards the bones, converts tryptophan into serotonin, and aids in muscle recovery. Magnesium also plays a role in how stress hormones enter our brain. It helps to curb the secretion of cortisol and prevent it from entering the brain. Interestingly, chronic stress can leach minerals like magnesium from the bones and tissue, causing a deficiency in some cases.
Recommended dose: For adults, 300-400 mg daily is recommended. This can be through food or as a combination of food and supplementation. Choose magnesium biglycinate for the highest absorption rate in regards to supplementation.
Foods high in magnesium: almonds, spinach, cashews, black beans, whole grains, avocado
9. Deep Breathing
Research doesn't quite have breathing techniques down to a science yet, but there is definitely a strong correlation between deep, meditative breathing and feelings of calm. It could be because many neurotransmitters such as serotonin are largely made in the digestive tract by our micro flora, and deep, belly breathing affects their production. It could also be because practicing these breathing techniques forces us to stop and focus on the breath, rather than an outside stressor. It refocuses the brain internally, and it allows us to become more in tune with ourselves.
You will absolutely feel better if you exercise moderately. Not only is exercise another tool we can use to refocus our attention, it releases endorphins which promote feelings of happiness and wellness. Having exercise-related goals gives us a challenge to work towards, and the time spent completing these activities can act therapeutic. Exercise is also such a broad word. It encompasses walking, hiking, running, yoga, swimming, weight lifting, etc. It can be social or solitary, depending on how you enjoy it best. It's ideal to start slowly and build up over moderate periods of time, to avoid injury.
I hope these tools help you in some way to overcome whatever stressful situation ails you. And always remember that you're stronger and braver than you think. Be kind to yourself xx