HOW YOUR DIET CAN HELP TO MANAGE STRESS
In recognition of Stress Awareness Month, Nutritional Therapist Ebru Bayrak explains how stress can effect the physiology of our bodies along with key nutrition and lifestyle solutions.
Stress is all around us. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost three quarters of the UK population have felt so stressed over the previous year, they've been overwhelmed or unable to cope. Within this article, I hope to aid a clear understanding of stress, how it can target the function of our internal and physical health, symptoms to be aware of and how nutrition can best defend us against damage or disease and overall reduce stress itself.
If you're ready to take charge of the stress in your life, read on.
WHAT IS STRESS?
The dictionary definition of stress is 'a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’. Stress causes physiological changes to our body and can lead to health problems over time if unresolved. It's impossible to avoid stress, but we can control how we respond to it – meaning stress does not control us.
Our bodies and nervous systems were designed to respond to short-term stressors like coming to halt at a traffic light or short bursts of high-intensity exercise. However, the insidious and problematic stressors are long-term like environmental burden, inflammation or health, work and financial stressors.
If we don’t have the tools to adequately deal with those stressors whilst we are facing them, they can have long-term effects on our physiology; so, while we might be out of the situation causing us stress, our body is still responding as though there is an imminent threat. If this goes on for long enough, the adrenal glands will alter the production of our stress hormone, cortisol and the autonomic nervous system will stay in the sympathetic (fight or flight) state despite being in a ‘safe’ environment.
Stress brings about chemical changes in our bodies. We all possess two little glands sitting near our kidneys which help us deal with stress. They’re known as our adrenal glands. These amazing glands produce stress hormones which bring about the physiological reactions to a perceived stressor. The adrenal glands also have other functions, which is why stress can have such profound effects throughout the entire body
INTERNAL SYSTEMS THAT STRESS CAN IMPACT
The physical and emotional experiences of stress can and do have very real consequences on our physiology. It can impact most systems in the body including, but not limited to the:
Chronic stress has been shown to suppress both cellular and humoral immune function; this affects your ability to defend against viruses and mount an immune response. In a large Swedish study, it was also found that stress-related disorders were correlated with a 30% increased likelihood of developing an autoimmune condition.
Excess cortisol, our primary stress hormone, interrupts the brain’s communication with the thyroid (TSH → T4 and T3) and the conversion to the more active thyroid hormone (T4→T3 and instead increases reverse T3), downregulating the thyroid’s function. Cortisol can also impact sex hormone levels, particularly progesterone which is an important protective hormone for fertility, sleep and anxiety.
There is a highway between the gut-brain called the vagus nerve which primarily regulates the parasympathetic, or rest and digest, nervous function. The state of our nervous system can dictate aspects of digestive function like stomach acid and gastric motility.
Most of these effects are bidirectional, meaning that these systems also affect the stress response. This is why it is so important to approach health from a multi-system, holistic approach, with cutting edge nutrition, functional testing so that I can attend to all of your needs.
ADRENAL FATIGUE (BURNOUT)
If our stress glands carry on pumping out cortisol, their functioning may become compromised and they can no longer produce enough of their hormones. This is known as adrenal fatigue, adrenal exhaustion or burnout.
The symptoms of elevated cortisol are very different to how we feel once our adrenal glands have become exhausted and cortisol production falls. If you experience any of the following symptoms on a regular basis, you may be suffering from the effects of ongoing stress:
• Drowsiness, fatigue, energy slumps
• Tired but wired' – exhausted but hyped up at the same time
• Sleeping problems; difficulty in relaxing enough to drop off to sleep
• Trouble getting up in the morning
• Low mood and mood swings
• Anger or irritability, having a short fuse
• Anxiety, worrying about things out of your control
• Feelings of being overwhelmed
• Racing thoughts – feeling like you're constantly on the go, jumping from one task to the next
• Memory problems, concentration difficulties, feeling distracted
• Low libido
• Sugar or salt cravings, need for chocolate, cravings for salt or stimulants
• Fast heartbeat and palpitations
• High blood pressure
• Poor immunity, frequent colds and flu
• Skin conditions
• Tendency to retain fat around the middle
• Digestive disturbances, IBS
If you have some of these symptoms, we can test your cortisol. The most helpful tests to understand cortisol are 4-point urinary or salivary tests that track the cortisol curve. This can give more specific direction for treatment.
Contact me about further testing:
KEY NUTRITION AND LIFESTYLE PRINCIPLES TO SUPPORT THE STRESS RESPONSE:
Balance blood sugar
When blood sugar drops, typically after a carbohydrate heavy meal or snack, cortisol is released to help liberate blood sugar. Consuming protein, fat and fibre at each meal helps to stabilize blood sugar.
If inadequate calories are consistently consumed (especially for women), it can exacerbate the stress response and signal to the body, ‘my survival is being challenged’ which is unfavourable in the recovery from chronic stress.
Micronutrients such as B vitamins, Magnesium and Vitamin C are crucial for adrenal function.
Cortisol is highly anti-inflammatory; reducing inflammation can help to reduce the demand of cortisol. Reducing processed and refined foods decrease inflammatory burden.
Caffeine and alcohol can cause an increase in stress hormones and is also known to reduce the sensitivity to insulin, impacting blood glucose levels as well as sleep negatively.
Move your body for your stage of burnout
Being sedentary can promote a state of stress, however over-exercising can also. Moving your body gently each day through activities like walking and low intensity yoga are safe for most people. Depending on your stage of adrenal dysfunction, movement capacity changes.
Practicing mindfulness can entail traditional meditation, though it doesn’t have to. Mindful walks, eating, and conversations can all help to regulate the nervous system.
The pandemic has accentuated that we, as a society, need to be better equipped with resources to effectively and sustainably manage stress. Whether you’re focusing on your digestive health, autoimmune conditions, chronic infections, hormone or cardiovascular health - holistically addressing your stress response will always be a key factor.
If you’re looking for more support and direction in your journey with stress, please contact me for a 20 minute mini-consultation: https://ebrubayrak.com/services/ola/services/pre-consultation