It’s pretty safe to say that we all experience stress in our lives. Whether it’s physical stress or mental stress, perhaps about something that is coming up for us or even something we are making up in our minds (thinking it’s a bigger deal than it actually is), all stress causes a physiological response in our body. Some stress is actually good for us, but too much stress is harmful, especially if it’s ongoing over time. Even worse, stress promotes weight gain, particularly around our waist line.
Stress impacts our nutrition in a few different ways.
First, it affects our digestion. In times of stress, our sympathetic nervous system is ignited as the body shifts from a state of resting into a state that is ready to deal with stress. You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response, and this is the body preparing to fight the perceived stress or run from it. When this happens, blood sugar increases to provide energy and blood moves away from the digestive organs to the muscles, and because of this, digestion shuts down (and we may even need to ‘release’… think of those bathroom runs before an exam!). When digestion shuts down, food cannot be broken down properly and it can begin to ferment in our stomach (hello bloating!) and we can’t access nutrients. In order to digest properly, our parasympathetic nervous system for ‘rest and digest’ needs to be running.
The second way stress impacts us is through nutrient depletion. Studies have shown that the body depletes it stores of nutrients under stress, particularly the water-soluble energizing B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, as well as protein, vitamin C and vitamin A.
It is also important to recognize that stress affects our ability to make healthy food choices and can influence our food cravings (read Why We Crave Carbs here). Often times when we feel stressed, we want to reach out to comfort foods (whether that be chocolate, ice cream, etc. – typically more processed foods) or easy and quick foods that can also be quite processed. What’s important to remember here is that these foods are lacking nutrition, and coupled with the fact that our body depletes nutrients in times of stress, we end up on the deficient end. Even more, caffeine and sugar stimulate the nervous system and when the nervous system is already in overdrive with stress, these can act as irritants.
In times of stress, we should strive to support and equip our body. Balanced nutrition can positively influence your ability to cope with stress.
So, what are some ways we can cope with stress and combat it with nutrition? We can eat foods that support our nervous system such as almonds, basil, ginger, chamomile, omega-3 rich foods, and sea vegetables, as well as other foods and nutrients that support our body in times of stress such as B vitamins, maca root, and foods high in magnesium. It’s also important to steady our blood sugar levels, drink herbals teas, practice deep breathing, and move our body! To learn about these foods and nutrients in greater detail, check out the Foods that Combat Stress handout below!