Stress and nutrition, how to break the vicious circle?

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How stress impacts our eating behaviour

Angela Walker is a Nutritional Therapist offering both personalized nutrition and advice in functional medicine. She holds a Master of Science in Nutritional Medicine combined with a strong background in functional therapy. She works with health clinics, with an emphasis on brain’s performance. We talk about how stress impacts our eating behaviours in our podcast.

How stress and nutrition are connected?

Stress is absolutely integral to how the body works. It really is the thing that allows us to interact, to engage successfully with our environment. It’s part of the internal logistics system of your body and its job is to direct resources to what exactly where we need them. It creates a release of energy in it, stimulates blood circulation around your cardiovascular system so it gives you the resources to deal with the scary tasks.

The link comes in that the things that we eat and drink can either have a positive or a negative response on how our body manages stress so we can eat in a certain way that’s going to make stress be more reactive. Equally, we could eat in a certain way. We can eat foods that are going to repair the damage and give us the better resources so that we can manage stress in a much more natural as in control kind of way.

What good nutrition can do, is give you the resources so that you can fine-tune how your body responds to stress and not overreact to stress. If there’s constantly something happening that triggers us, then we respond to as a stressor and that’s where the challenge comes when we need a lot of resources to manage that and that’s where the nutrition comes in.

Why we tend to overeat or eat more junk food when we’re stressed

There are typically two responses to stress:

1/ Some people overeat so they might be overeating junk food. They might be overeating sugary foods, fatty foods, salty food is often one that people who are highly stressed will crave.

2/ Another group of people won’t eat, skip meals and don’t have much appetite when being stressed.

If we learn to listen to our bodies, we can easily interpret the signals that it gives us. When you feel stressed, go for a walk, do a breathing exercise, have a bath with Epsom salts, whatever it might be. Also, hunger doesn’t necessarily mean we need to eat or hunger means we’re tired.

What happens in the body when we’re stressed?

Cortisol is the hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and its role is to direct those resources in the body. It prepares the body for a big challenge. And then when we’ve had enough cortisol, the messages said to the brain to switch off. The problem is when these stresses are constantly bombarding us, the cortisone never switches off and have some recovery time. And if it doesn’t happen and it gets a bit sluggish and isn’t as sensitive. It’s not a sustainable way to live, we end up with very elevated cortisol levels and this causes blood sugar, blood glucose released from storage forms in the body. This creates fatty areas in the body that can lead to chronic disease, liver problems, cardiovascular disease etc.

If you have better awareness and understanding of stress, you’ll know better how to manage it. The goal isn’t to stop stress but to really try and learn how to manage it rather than let it take over us.

Are they any foods that can cause stress?

The very highly refined carbohydrates, those high sugar snacks, the junk food that has a lot of refined sugar in it. Also, if you have a particular sensitivity to a food, gluten or dairy sensitivities and if you’re continuing to eat those foods, this causes a stress as well.

What is an anti-stress diet? What foods to eat?

Eat a whole food diet as unprocessed as possible. Eat slow release carbohydrates: whole grains, brown rice, whole grain bread, vegetables, whole vegetables, fresh fruits. It means having a protein source with each meal: egg, cheese, chicken, beans, lentils, meat. A small protein source with your meal helps your body keep the blood sugar nice and stable.

Go for good quality fats from olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds that make sure that you’re the cells in your body have got the right essential fats, that’s really important for making our stress response system more sensitive.

  • Thinking about when we eat
  • Trying to have regular meals with four to five hours in between each meal
  • Having a good overnight fast

This helps the digestive system to have a chance to really process things and clear out overnight.

Shall we avoid coffee and alcohol when stressed?

There is nothing inherently wrong in moderate enjoyment of coffee and alcohol. In fact, both has got amazing benefits. The coffee beans sharpen brain function and enhance cognitive functioning. Alcohol is fantastic for social cohesion, for celebration, for having fun and having a healthy stress response system. Alcohol also got resveratrol in it for example in red wine.

But when we start to abuse them, it gives them a really bad name. If we’re using them in a smarter way, they can be beneficial for our health, they can give us huge enjoyment and everyone can be happy. You have to learn how to manage them. And not develop addictions. Just reduce them gradually and then go into a period of abstinence.  Learn how to disengage from them so you have control over them.

How can we de-stress in general?

A lot comes back to education and awareness and understanding what stress is, and how it’s impacting us. And recognizing that stress isn’t an external thing but an internal response.

This is why I love about your approach at Re-Set, looking at wellbeing is a very integrated way, that’s crucial.

Take an honest look at what is causing you stress in your life and process it. Self-help books can help, talking therapies can be really helpful. Get the foundations right in your lifestyle:

  • Enough sleep
  • Eating the whole food diet
  • Finding habits that help you to relax
  • Listen to your body rather than to block it out
  • Acknowledge to what the body is telling you
One easy tip to improve our wellbeing?

Find what you love and do it. Find your calling and follow it.

You can purchase Angela Nutrition course here. For more nutrition advice, you can also find Angela at Feedyourselfsmarter.com.

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