It’s everywhere. From the coworker beside you who keeps tapping their feet, to the guy who cut you off on your way into work. Kids demanding extracurricular schedule, expectations from your boss. It seems unavoidable. We haven’t even touched on environmental factors like inhaling chemical air fresheners, perfumes or exhaust from vehicles.Absorbing toxins from lotions and shampoos. And what about the foods we eat? Preservatives, artificial flavors and colors all emit the stress response in the body.
Our body’s response to stress regardless of its source, reverts to its primal instinct of “fight or flight”. It’s supposed to help us escape injury or death in an emergency and then return to normal after we’ve fought or flew. The issue is that although the body is simply trying to protect us, it cannot distinguish between a death threat and hitting every red light on the way to a meeting. The same internal stress response occurs. In our modern world, we are very rarely faced with a dangerous situation. Most of our stresses today do not threaten our lives. We are still safe. Possibly frustrated and annoyed, but safe. The accumulations of non-life threatening stressors can become more harmful to our health than a big blow. Daily smaller stressors become chronic stress. The body is now put into a position where is must react to stress on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. It becomes a long-term reaction.
The main stress hormone is called “cortisol.” It is released from your adrenal glands in response to stress. Cortisol is naturally high in the morning to get you going, and slowly fades during the day so you can sleep. Cortisol regulates metabolism,blood pressure and cardiovascular function. Corticosterone works alongside cortisol and regulates the immune system and inflammatory response.
Elevated levels of cortisol are associated with belly fat, poor sleep, brain fog, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and lowers your immunity.
This is something I see on a regular basis working with clients to improve their health. They will often come in to just lose some weight or increase their energy and we soon discover that the stress response on the body is affecting their results. It is often high achievers, type A personalities, successful and driven who experience these symptoms. Interestingly, if you are to ask them if they are stressed, they often say no. They get it all done so what’s there to be stressed about, right?Understand that although the tasks get crossed of the list, there is still a physiological response to stress that needs to be addressed. Here is a breakdown of how we successfully incorporate changes to heal the body and not coincidentally, results follow.
Foods that Increase the Stress Response on the Body
Sugar in all its many forms. Reducing the sugar we eat and drink can be a great step toward better health for our minds and bodies. Sugar will create a rise in insulin to lower blood sugar that spikes after sugar consumption. This will result in a spike in adrenal hormones creating further stress on the adrenal glands and a greater release of cortisol. It should be noted that sugar comes in many different forms. It does not need to be sweet to contain sugar. Be cautious of sauces, beverages and packaged foods
Refined or simple carbohydrates– These foods will react in the body the same way sugar will. Blood sugar initially raises, causing an insulin response then a dramatic drop in blood sugar. This cycle creates stress on the body and the adrenal glands. This will include all processed grains and food products. Avoid white bread, rice,crackers, and cookies.
Caffeine– When consuming caffeine which is a stimulant, the body responds in the same way as it would in the fight or flight response. Adrenaline and cortisol are released in response to the stimulus. Over time, this system will become depleted. No longer will you experience a boost from caffeine, but rather become more and more tired even with greater consumption. One or two cups a day is usually fine but, if coffee makes you feel anxious and jittery, then cut back on the amount of caffeine you ingest.
Alcohol-Alcohol is a toxin that will impair many bodily systems. The adrenal glands will respond by releasing cortisol once again. It will create an insulin response leading to a drop in blood sugar followed by cravings typically for carbohydrate rich foods. This feeds the cycle of fluctuating blood sugars and stress on the body. Alcohol will also impair our cognitive function not only on the day of consumption but for up to 80 hours afterward. This will diminish coping abilities for stress.
Being dehydrated also increases cortisol. As alcohol is a diuretic, this is another way it can be harmful to the body. Make sure you’re drinking enough water every day, especially if you feel thirsty.
Foods to Include to Reduce Stress on the Body
Whole Foods-Avoid pre-made, packaged and convenient foods. They contain chemical additives,dyes, fillers, herbicides and pesticides. To minimize the stress on the body eat a whole foods diet. Ideally organic and locally sourced fruits,vegetables and animal products.
Fat- Fat is necessary in our diet for hormone production and brain function. If our bodies are depleted of hormones from the stress response and we are not supplying it with enough quality fats, it will be difficult to replenish the lost stores of hormones. It will also contribute to anxiety. Sources of high-quality fats include avocado, olive oil, ghee, butter, coconut oil,salmon, nuts and seeds. Avoid fats from process foods
Sea Salt-Individuals who suffer from adrenal fatigue are encouraged to add high quality sea salt to their foods. Sodium is critical for adrenal function (15)and will help to regular blood pressure that is often low.Pink Himalayan sea salt and Celtic sea salt are good choices.
Protein-Protein at each meal will help to stabilize the blood sugars response and provide the body with amino acids that aide in repair and synthesize enzymes. Good sources of protein are found in grass fed beef, fee range chicken, organic eggs. Or for vegetarian options, nuts, seeds,especially hemp, chia and flax, legumes, beans and quinoa.
Vitamin C rich Foods-Vitamin C is essential for adrenal health and is used up very quickly when the body is under stress. Sources of vitamin C include peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, kiwi, and citrus fruit.
Vitamin B rich Foods- B Vitamins are helpful when trying to manage stress. They work with brain chemistry and balance the neurotransmitters (16) which will reduce anxiety associate with stress and potentially improve our ability to cope.Vitamin B rich foods include salmon,beef, turkey, eggs, bananas, avocado, spinach and almonds.
Magnesium Rich Foods-magnesium helps to balance the nervous system and supports heart function. Foods that contain magnesium include spinach,pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate (yes you read the right!), black beans, avocados,almonds and kefir. CLICK HERE for a decadent treat that includes some of the nutrient dense foods. Chocolate Avocado Pudding.
Lifestyle Techniques to Lower Cortisol
Reduce your stress with mindfulness. Many studies show that reducing stressful thoughts and worry reduces cortisol. Recognize the conversations you are having with yourself. Is it undue worry? Replaying an incident from the past thinking what you should’ve done instead? Our thought affects our hormones and our health. By gaining control of our thought through mindfulness, we can reduce the stress response on the body. Meditation, journaling, practicing calm expression can all contribute to your health both mentally and physically.
Exercise (but don’t overdo it).While intense exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily, it can reduce overall cortisol levels. By contrast, restorative exercise like yoga or a walk in nature can help induce the healing effects of the body and reduce cortisol levels.
Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep is underrated.Sleep reduces cortisol levels and also helps improve your overall health in so many ways. Establish a good bedtime routine to encourage a more restful sleep. Avoid electronics 1 hour before bed. Keep the room slightly cool and completely dark. Aim to be in bed by 10pm. For more tips on improving sleep, CLICK HERE for full post.
Play. Find an activity that brings you joy and incorporate it into your life. It may be a hobby you used to enjoy in the past or reconnecting with friends and family or getting a pet. Whatever makes you smile is what is needed to heal. No longer accepting the excuse for yourself that you are too busy. Make the time for yourself that you deserve to enjoy life.
Be social and bust loneliness. Science has shown health risks from social isolation and loneliness.It’s true! Maintaining good relationships and spending time with people you like and who support you is key.
Do something different. Too often we get caught up on the treadmill of life. Get up at the same time, pack the same lunch for work, drive the same route, see the same people, same environment. Change is good. It stimulates excitement,variety and breaks routine. Take a different route to work. Stop for a coffee at the cute cafe you keep passing by. Call that old friend. Take a weekend away or even a day trip to have lunch by the water. Bring some variety into your life. Spice it up!
Lets be honest, there is always going to be stress. Not all stress is bad. Some can be supportive to our health. But for the rest, caution need to be had against its effects. Recognizing how the body reacts to stress is the first step towards taking control back of your health. By incorporating some of these tips, you may be able to improve our weight, you r sleep, your immunity and ultimately your life. Not necessarily aiming for a stress free life. That’s unrealistic. But a better manged stress life.
As a Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Coach a large part of what I do is help my clients re-balance their life to reduce the stress response on the body. It is often the key to regaining their health. To learn more about creating a specialized plan to support your health, CLICK HERE to book a free consultation call. Appointments can be done remotely for your convenience.