Consider a day you’ve had that was more hectic than others. Maybe you overslept or got stuck in traffic and were late to work, or your boss assigned you a big project with a tight deadline – it’s just one of “those days.” Chances are you are not alone – everyone has encountered some form of stress at one point or another in their life (1). But did you know that nutrition can play a role in daily stress management?
Stress can subconsciously play a role in the short-term food choices we make while also potentially wreaking havoc on our long-term wellbeing. Think about it: after one of “those days,” you may often find yourself looming over the bakery section of your local grocery store looking for less healthy “comfort food”. While this may temporarily relieve stress, it is not necessarily beneficial to your overall health. In this article, we’ll discuss the short and long-term effects of stress and how you can use nutrition-related strategies to combat it.
Stress is often described as how the brain and body act in response to any type of pressure or challenge (2). Just like everything in life, it is all about finding the right balance. While acute, or short-term, stress isn’t always a bad thing, chronic, or long-term, stress can have detrimental effects on our health.
How do we know when stress is acute versus when stress is chronic? Acute stress generally lasts for short periods of time. In life-threatening circumstances, this is known as the “fight or flight” response: you may feel your pulse accelerate, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity as stress signals the body to prepare to face the perceived threat. In non-life-threatening circumstances, the same reaction may occur but in response to less extreme situations such as when you need to give a presentation or interview for a new job (1). Chronic stress on the other hand, is usually persistent and has longer-lasting effects. The body’s response to chronic stress may be more subtle than that of acute stress, but the effects may be more damaging.
Infrequent episodes of acute stress don’t generally cause problems for people in good health (2). When we’re faced with a stressful situation, the brain releases a series of hormones and chemicals that might suppress appetite and help trigger the fight or flight response, putting the desire to eat temporarily on hold. After this response, your blood-sugar levels may drop and your body needs the nutrients to be properly replenished (3). However, this is most often when people turn to high fat, sugary “comfort foods” to help cope after being faced with a stressful situation. This isn’t always a bad thing, as sometimes the food we enjoy can actually reduce our stress levels, but moderation is key (3).
It is when stress persists that it can have a negative impact on health. Chronic stress occurs when there is a constant source of stress and the body never receives a clear “signal”, like it does in episodes of acute stress, to return to normal (1). Having the body in a constant “fight or flight” mode can cause digestive symptoms, headaches, irritability and fatigue. During these times of prolonged stress, the brain also signals the body to release the hormone cortisol, which can cause an increase in appetite to support the body’s energy needs. If cortisol is continuously released, then it could lead to increased cravings of fatty, sweet foods, poor eating habits, and overeating (4). Eating less nutritious foods can further increase the physical stress put on your body by making digestion more difficult (3). Beverages, such as alcohol and caffeine, can also have an effect and further increase the strain put on the body.
Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other illnesses – including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety (1). This is why it is important to give your body the nutrition it needs to help combat stress.
Being able to manage stress levels so that they do not adversely affect your mental or physical health is key. Proper nutrition is an important stress management tool. When our bodies are poorly fed, stress takes an even greater toll on our health. Here are some tips to help you eat well for less stress:
1. Prep and pack your meals beforehand. Having your meals prepped and planned for the day leaves you less susceptible to venturing to the vending machine, and ensures you are eating well-balanced meals throughout the day.
2. Stock your workspace with healthy snacks. Similar to planning your meals, make sure you plan your snacks to avoid mid-day pitfalls. Keep a supply of quick, healthy snacks at your workspace. Some examples are low-fat granola or granola bars, nuts, veggies with hummus or yogurt with fresh fruit (6).
3. Eat regularly throughout the day. Your brain needs a steady supply of glucose to function at its best and eating regularly can help keep your glucose levels stable (6).
4. Eat Mindfully. It is not only important to make sure that you are eating, but to be mindful of what you are eating. Make sure you are eating foods that supply valued nutrients, healthy fats, and high fiber, such as sources of lean protein, a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Need some extra support? Apps such as Lifesum are great tools to help track your healthy eating habits, daily nutrient intake, water intake and exercise to make sure you are getting everything your body needs.
5. Trade your afternoon cup of coffee for more sleep. While consuming caffeine may seem to give you a kick start when you’re tired, some studies have found that the effects of caffeine are temporary and may ultimately disrupt sleep patterns (3). Instead of turning to caffeine when you’re tired, try to adopt better sleep habits.
1. National Institute of Mental Health. 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. (2019).
2. American Psychological Association. Stress: The different kinds of stress. (2016). http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx
3. Collingwood, J. (2018). Beating Stress through Nutrition. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/beating-stress-through-nutrition/
4. Harvard Health Publishing. How stress can make us overeat. (2019).https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/how-stress-can-make-us-overeat
5. Stress Management Society. Combating Stress with a Balanced Nutritional Diet. (2019). http://www.mhit.org/assets/combat-nutritional-stress.pdf
6. UNC Campus Health. Nutrition and Stress. (2019).
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