How to manage your stress by changing your diet.
Stress is normal. If your body can cope, your mind is better equipped.
Stress is unavoidable. Every day we face the stress of going out, getting from A to B, confronting others, doing difficult or tedious jobs, shopping, making our way home, settling domestic disputes, cooking, and then attempting to get some sleep.
It’s a tough old world, and that’s exactly how it’s going to stay for the foreseeable.
It may be unwelcome, but stress is the norm, and feeds human creativity. Who would really want to live a life devoid of challenges? The problem is that many people are just not coping with life’s slings and arrows.
You may not think that diet is involved in the body’s coping mechanisms, but think again. Your body is hard-wired to deal with stressful situations, given the right nutritional terrain. Find out below how stress can affect your body, as well as your mind, and then learn how to build your resistance.
Modern stress, ancient bodies
This may be the twenty-first century, but we still inhabit Stone Age bodies, with the same physiological make-up as our Paleolithic forebears. Our nervous and hormonal systems do not distinguish between stress of the ferocious-beast-intent-on-devouring-us type, or the vile-boss-making-unreasonable-demands type. The physical response is always the same.
Prolonged stress eventually take its toll on mind and body, to varying degrees. The reason why some people are able to deal with punishing stress levels for so long, whilst others succumb early to the detrimental effects of endless pressure, may lie in how well their adrenals are functioning.
The body’s response to stress is activated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus is a gland in the brain which stimulates and controls the pituitary gland in response to the changes it detects, and in turn the pituitary stimulates production of hormones by the adrenal glands. You are equipped with two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney, and these produce hormones in response to stressful situations or thoughts.
Anatomy of stress
It was the world authority on the subject, and author of ‘The Stress of Life’ (1956), Hans Selye, who first identified a common response to stress which he called the “General Adaptation Syndrome”. According to Selye, humans respond in three stages when under extreme pressure. These are:
Stage one — the alarm reaction, when your body goes on full alert. Stress is detected and the body reacts by producing adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine). This is a sort of knee-jerk reaction to a given situation. It prepares you for “fight-or-flight”, and is short-term only.
Blood sugar rises, to give you more energy to fight or flee, and the heart pumps faster to get more oxygen and nutrients to muscles. Energy is routed away from non-essential functions, such as digestion. Breathing increases, and the respiratory passageways widen to accommodate more air, and therefore more oxygen. Blood clotting agents are mobilised, in case of wounding.
The alarm reaction is nothing less than a spectacular feat of biochemical engineering, and it is a pity that you are unable to appreciate its elegant sublimity when it’s going full throttle.
Stage two — adaptation, or resistance. You adapt to, and learn to cope with, the stressor, which is now a full-time feature in your life. During this stage, the hormone cortisol is produced in excess. Normally, cortisol is produced cyclically in what is termed the circadian rhythm: levels start to rise between 3am and 6am and gradually decrease throughout the day so that by night-time they are at their lowest.
You need this hormone because it:
- Repairs cells
- Increases blood sugar levels when needed
- Increases mental and physical energy
- Has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect
- Improves mood
- Stimulates fat burning
- Controls the immune system — cortisol prevents over-reaction of white blood cells, which could lead to auto-immune disease (where the body fails to recognise self as self and attacks its own cells and organs)
- Maintains blood pressure by preventing sodium loss
Like most essential things, cortisol is required in just the right amounts: too little, or too much, can disturb the homoeostasis of the body. With constantly high cortisol levels, you are vulnerable to infection and disease, because virtually all components of the immune response are suppressed by cortisol.
If you are at stage two, your symptoms are likely to include:
- Frequent headaches
- Insomnia (because cortisol is high at night, when it should be low)
- Menstrual irregularities
- Weight gain, especially around the abdominal area
- Frequent colds and infections
- Signs of premature aging
Yes, it’s true - too much cortisol makes you fat, sick and old before your time. It can stress you out just thinking about it. The aging effect is due to the fact that too much cortisol also suppresses another important adrenal steroid hormone, dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA. DHEA is the hormone that keeps you young and slim, and is produced abundantly until around the age of 20, when levels start to decline.
Stage three — exhaustion. You are no longer able to deal with the stress and your resistance is gone.
Although the resistance stage can last for several years, the body’s capacity for adaptation has its limits, and if there is no let-up in the burden of mental trauma, the exhaustion stage is inevitable. It is at this point that disproportionate cortisol output, which the adrenals can no longer sustain, starts to decline, falling to below normal levels.
Mental and physical exhaustion ensue. You are running on empty, and every day have a new mountain to climb. It can feel overwhelming, as well as exhausting.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is associated with an under-functioning HPA axis. So too is fibromyalgia, a condition characterised by musculoskeletal pain and fatigue, and which is associated with stress. People suffering from post traumatic stress disorder have been found to under-secrete cortisol, as have otherwise healthy individuals living under conditions of chronic stress.
“A number of studies have now provided convincing evidence that the adrenal gland is hypoactive in some stress-related states. The phenomenon of hypocortisolism has mainly been described for patients, who experienced a traumatic event and subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Bellato et al (2012)
If you are at stage three, your symptoms are likely to include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Painful muscles
- Dizziness (especially on rising suddenly, because of low blood pressure)
Caroline came for a nutrition consultation for help with very low energy levels. She described herself as “very highly stressed.” She was fine in the morning, but only until 9am — and then her energy crashed for the rest of the day. That suggested to me that her cortisol levels also crashed, around about the same time.
A Stage 3 classic.
As well as very low energy, Caroline had regular headaches and a history of depression. She had taken Prozac in the past, but had come off all medication. She also suffered irritability, insomnia, frequent colds, and premenstrual syndrome.
She also loved sweet foods, especially chocolate, her comfort snack. This was particularly telling, and I was confident that a change of diet was just what she needed.
Diet — the three-step programme
The dietary regime designed to help stabilise the adrenals is essentially the same, whatever stage of adrenal stress you have arrived at.
There are three dietary steps you need to consider: stabilising blood sugar, eating the right fat, and making sure you have a high intake of the individual nutrients that the adrenals depend on.
1. Stabilise blood sugar
Achieving this takes the pressure off the adrenals and helps them normalise hormonal output. High cortisol elevates blood sugar, but if you are not producing enough cortisol you are more likely to experience low blood sugar. People with blood sugar disorders — such as type 2 diabetes — tend to have experience HPA axis overactivity.
In order to stabilise blood sugar, the most important dietary essential is the removal of all sugar and refined carbohydrates from the diet. This means no sugar, and no starchy carbohydrates that have a high glycemic index.
The glycaemic index (GI) is a system that measures the rate at which the carbohydrate component of a food item enters the bloodstream and raises blood sugar, on a scale of 0 to 100. Carbohydrates are categorised as having a low, medium or high GI. A low GI is a score of 55 or less, a medium GI is 56–69 and a high GI score is 70 or more.
As you can see, almost all starchy carbs are off the menu. But if you like your carbohydrates and would find them hard to give them up, choose beans and lentils. They have a low glycemic index and reasonable amounts of protein.
Protein is a key component of blood sugar balance. Each meal should have a portion of a complete protein: meat, fish, eggs or cheese.
2. Eat the right kind of fat.
Another essential dietary component in your quest to normalise adrenal output are the essential fatty acids commonly known as omega-3 fatty acids, of the type found in oily fish. These fats help stabilise adrenal hormone output, especially over-activation triggered by mental stress. The best omega-3 fish sources are sardines, salmon, herring, trout, mackerel, anchovies and tuna (fresh, not tinned).
Oily fish is ideal because you combine omega-3 fat with high quality protein. A side or two of the nutrients below completes your meal.
3. Get the nutrients your adrenals need.
There are certain nutrients which are highly concentrated in the adrenals, and which are essential for healthy adrenal function. In particular, the adrenals need vitamin C, the B complex (especially B5) and the mineral magnesium.
Vitamin C — All fruits and vegetables, especially kiwi, strawberries, blueberries (and other berries), dark leafy greens such as spinach and watercress.
You need this vitamin to make cortisol and all adrenal steroid hormones. The more stressed you are, the more rapidly you use up circulating vitamin C which is normally found in highly concentrated levels in the adrenals. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) therapy has been shown to stabilise adrenal hormone output.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) — Mushrooms, meat (especially pork, duck and offal), eggs, cheese.
This is another vitamin also highly concentrated in the adrenal glands. It is needed to convert glucose into energy and make adrenal hormones.
Magnesium — Nuts (especially almonds, Brazils, cashews), meat, fish (white & oily), shellfish, beans, kale, spinach.
This is probably the most important mineral for adrenal health.
“Mg deficiency results in a stress effect and increased susceptibility to physiological damage produced by stress.”
In short, a diet devoid of sugar and refined carbohydrates but with plenty of beans, dark leafy greens, fruits, meat, fish (especially oily fish) and nuts is the one that will provide the nutrients that your adrenals need to function at optimal level.
Caroline’s diet was not helping her adrenal function.
Breakfast consisted of cereal with rice ‘milk’. Rice milk has an astronomical glycemic index — pushing 90 — so wasn’t helping. Lunch was usually a sandwich, and in the evening a vegetable curry with white rice was typical. Generally, she ate “loads” of bread and potatoes.
Caroline made the appropriate dietary changes, and came back to see me six weeks later. All credit to Caroline: she threw herself into the task of changing her diet, and didn’t cut corners. I think she saw this as her only chance — she simply didn’t know what else to do.
It paid off. Her health had been transformed during the previous six weeks: she was sleeping well, her energy and mood were “much better” and she had had no headaches. Cravings for sweet foods were gone.
Sometimes when I mentioned giving up sweet foods, I would see a shadow of horror pass across my client’s face. I had a way of dealing with this which always worked: I’d tell them that if they could just go five days sugar-free, within a week they would be free of cravings. I wasn’t making it up, and sure enough they would return sugar-sober, and quite evangelical about how well they felt because of it.
In short, Caroline’s body was coping better with the stress in her life, which was still there.
There was little I could do about her wayward children and indifferent husband, but that’s another story.
Do you have adrenal dysfunction?
The person best qualified to identify stress as a powerful determinant of your health and wellbeing is yourself. That is why, when I was a nutrition consultant regularly seeing stressed-out clients, I always asked the question: “Have you been stressed for a long time, and do you believe it is affecting your health?”
It was not uncommon, at this point, for my client to embark on a narrative of events, often starting in childhood. These stories were variously fascinating, heart-breaking, and shocking, but they were always unique and served as a reminder to me of the human ability to withstand enormous challenges and stresses.
At any stage of adrenal dysfunction (not to be confused with the medical condition adrenal insufficiency) you are likely to be using stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol to prop yourself up. You are also likely to have abnormal blood sugar levels and find yourself lurching from one cold or infection to another. You may find it difficult to get up in the morning and struggle with memory and concentration. Stressful situations become more difficult to handle and you find yourself becoming increasingly irascible.
Despite this, you might be driving yourself forward, eating poorly and never taking the time to relax.
If, by now, you suspect that sub-optimal adrenal function may be behind your symptoms you will hopefully be inspired by the knowledge that you can do something about it.
Not just diet…
Before embarking on a new dietary regime, you need to think seriously about the stress in your life and how to manage it. There is no one unique solution; the best approach combines stress management, relaxation techniques and of course dietary manipulation. Stress is one area where a truly holistic approach is crucial if you are to get effective results.
Exercise your mind
There are techniques you can adopt yourself and techniques which require the help of others. Exercise is a good starting point because this is something you can initiate on your own. Exercise is important because it helps normalise levels of stress hormones in the blood, and improves circulation. It also stimulates the release of endorphins — ‘happy hormones’ — that can elicit a sense of wellbeing and positivity. Aerobic exercise stimulates the production of cortisol, so ideally should be carried out in the morning only. Cortisol naturally falls towards evening, in preparation for sleep.
In addition to exercise, there are other effective tools you can utilise to manage stress levels. Your method of choice is a matter of what you feel drawn towards. Possibilities include meditation, positive imagery and deep breathing techniques. If you feel you need a talking therapy, you might want to consider some professional help from a stress clinic counsellor.
If ever there was an example of the mind-body connection, it is adrenal function. The mind affects the body, and although it can’t remove the stress, the body can help support and protect the mind, given the right ingredients.