Food alone can't remove stress from our lives but it can improve our resistance to it and lessen its long-term effects.
It's coming up to Christmas – a season packed with all kinds of potential stresses. But no matter what time of year, stress has become a daily problem for many of us: there are traffic jams, deadlines and various obligations to contend with, not to mention exams, job interviews, moving house... even watching the news can trigger a stress response. During these times, the body gets ready to "fight or flee" and adrenaline and other hormones are released (see "The stress response" section following).
While a little bit of stress is normal and can even improve your performance, it shouldn't become a permanent state of mind. This is because high levels of stress week after week wear you down and suppress your immune system, ultimately hindering your productivity and making you tired, cranky and unable to concentrate. And you can get hooked on stress as your body gets used to the adrenaline flowing through it. So it's important to learn to manage stress.
Why do we get stressed?
Stress certainly seems more common, or is it just that we talk about it more? Few of us in Australia have to worry about where the next meal will come from but our expectations and demands of life seem much greater than that of our parents and grandparents. But our response to stress remains like that of our Stone Age ancestors when the stress response helped them fight or flee from danger, keeping them alive.
The problem is our stresses are more psychological than physical – what will the boss say when you take another day off because the kids are sick? How are you going to get your assignment in on time or meet the mortgage next month? But none of this calls for you to fight or flee.
And the more the stress response is activated, the harder it becomes to turn off.
Effects of chronic stress
In times of low stress, cortisol levels are raised during the day when we are active and needing energy, and fall at night to allow the body to rest and repair. In times of chronic stress, constantly raised cortisol makes it hard to rest, resulting in poor sleep and fatigue. Chronic stress also causes wear and tear by:
damaging your heart and blood vessels, putting you at greater risk of heart disease;
suppressing your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection;
reducing blood flow to your gastrointestinal tract, causing gastric upset;
altering your brain's nerve pathways, increasing your susceptibility to stress, anxiety and depression;
increasing fat deposits, contributing to weight gain;
shrinking the memory parts of the brain.
Dealing with stress
Given stress is such a big part of our lives, can we overcome it? The answer to this is a resounding yes and not surprisingly the way we eat can make a big difference to our success. Food alone can't remove our stress – this requires other lifestyle strategies that we will look at later - but it can improve our resistance to stress and lessen its long-term effects.
A good start
Stress erodes your concentration and affects your memory. Fuelling up with a good breakfast that includes a high-fibre cereal or wholegrain bread, some fruit and low-fat yoghurt or milk works in your favour by providing energy to your hungry brain, creating optimal conditions for thinking and problem solving.
Don't run on empty
Stress hormones make your body work overtime so regular meals and snacks are important to meet these extra demands. Three meals a day are essential for a steady supply of stress-busting nutrition. Skip a meal and your body reacts as if it's being starved, raising your stress levels even more. Your mother was right when she told you not to gulp your food down – it's beneficial to eat and drink slowly and chew your food well. We can learn from the Europeans who take time over their meals, giving their bodies a chance to return to their non-stressed state.
Stress affects blood glucose and this can make you moody and irritable. The steady energy supply from regular meals and snacks ensures more stable blood glucose levels.
Carbohydrate foods with slowly released energy are best; those with a low glycemic index (GI), such as wholegrain bread, pasta, natural muesli, low-fat yoghurt and most fresh fruit. You might think sugary carbohydrates are a quick fix with their instant energy boost, but the high blood glucose levels they provide don't last long.
Finding the right balance
When your body is in overdrive, its need for nutrients is bigger than ever. Don't deprive a needy body by feeding it junk food and second-rate meals. Look after your body and give it the nourishment it needs. Here are some guidelines:
Protein foods, such as lean meat, fish or legumes (dried peas and beans) work alongside carbohydrate foods, helping regulate blood-glucose levels. They are also essential for tissue growth and repair, and are a rich supply of the minerals zinc and iron, which are in greater demand when you're stressed.
The type of fat you eat is important when stress hormones narrow your arteries and raise your heart rate. Stress increases the tendency of the blood to clot, which, while an obvious necessity during injury, is not healthy in the long term. More omega-3 fats, found mainly in oily fish, will help counteract overactive clotting factors.
Carbohydrates don't only provide fuel for the body. They are also a source of B vitamins, which are important for turning food into energy the body can use. B vitamins also maintain our nerve and brain cells. Wholegrain breads and cereals are good sources of many B vitamins.
Fruits and vegetables have the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, plus other nutrients. These nutrients are essential for counteracting the wear and tear of free radical damage thought to be heightened during times of stress.
Once you have your diet sorted, you need to consider ways to avoid becoming stressed in the first place. Lifestyle plays a big role here. Kate Alessia, a psychologist based in South Australia who specialises in stress-related problems, recommends the following five strategies for stress prevention):
Exercise: this is possibly the single most effective way to prevent stress because it converts stress chemicals into fuel. It reduces muscle tension, clears the head and reminds us of skills we have.
Breathe slowly: when stressed, we tend to take more shallow and rapid breath, using only the top part of our lungs. In contrast, breathing slower and using all of our lungs sends messages to our brain to turn off stress chemicals. To slow down your breath it can be helpful to count to three while breathing in, hold for three seconds, then breathe out for another three to five seconds. With practice, this style of breathing can become second nature and help reduce your stress levels.
Make time for fun: when we're stressed, it's easy to feel there's no way out and this only makes us feel more stressed. Make time to do the things you enjoy and that energise you - walk in the bush, go fishing, catch up with friends, listen to music, dance and pat the dog. Find things to laugh at and laugh frequently.
Let your feelings out: rather than bottling up negative emotions and having them intensify, write your feelings down in a journal or talk about them with someone you can trust.
Make your language helpful: avoid saying, "I have to... ", "I must... " or "I should... " – all of these place additional pressure on us. Saying, "I'm going to..." or "I plan to..." doesn't impose the same sort of burden.
What do you do if you can't avoid stress in your life? "One of the most important lessons in life is the management of stress," says Alessia. Everyone can benefit from having their own "tool kit" for stress management. The following strategies can all help to keep stress levels down:
Don't panic! Solve the problem instead. When confronted with a difficulty, identify the specific nature of the problem, identify potential solutions, then choose the best one. Often any action is better than inaction and worry.
Stay optimistic. Seek the good in situations and hope for the best outcome. Recognise the number of other times you've been under stress but things have worked out well. Most things we stress about are nowhere near as bad as we fear, and most will pale into insignificance with time.
Watch your posture. Our muscles hold tension, which can then cause pain and make us feel more stressed. Pull your shoulders down, rotate your neck, stretch your arms and legs, and stand up tall. Shake the stress out of your body; perhaps dance to your favourite music.
Make time to relax. Take "time out" to unwind by enjoying your favourite activities or simply sitting and breathing slowly. Try to meditate once a day, even if it's just for a few minutes, or take up yoga or tai chi.
Watch what you say. Avoid being overly dramatic in your language or making your dramas and frustrations seem worse than they are. Use accurate language - are you "devastated" by something, or merely "upset" or "annoyed"? Was it "dreadful" or "disappointing"? Take note of your self-talk when difficulties arise. We alltalk ourselves through situations or internally comment on what is going on. If our comments are self-critical or overly negative towards others, we will feel more stressed and overwhelmed. Make self-talk realistic but positive.
Take control of worrying. Write worries down and critically evaluate how likely they are and how bad it would really be if they did happen. If worrying is taking over your thoughts, restrict it to half-an-hour a day, then for the rest of the day, say to yourself, "I'll think about that later."
One day at a time. Focus on today, not tomorrow or yesterday. Keep bringing your thoughts back to what you're doing now. Stay in the moment.
Calming down with food
Fluid: dehydration is exhausting, making it difficult to be at your best. Get your eight glasses a day and replace excess coffee and tea with water, fruit juice, herbal teas or fruit smoothies.
Porridge: a great way to start the day, its low-GI carbohydrates will keep energy levels up for longer. An added bonus is beta-glucan, a soluble fibre in oats that helps sweep away fatty deposits so your stressed heart pumps easier.
Lean meat and oily fish: good for the minerals we are usually short on, such as iron and zinc, Australian red meat and oily fish (fresh or canned) are both good sources of long-chain omega-3 fats. Chronic high stress increases your risk of depression. Emerging research suggests a link between high omega-3 fat intakes and a lower risk of depression.
Fruits and vegetables: fibre-rich foods rich in antioxidants and nutrients help neutralise damaging free radicals produced by a body working overtime. Go for carrots, capsicum, tomato, spinach, broccoli, berries, mango, citrus, and rockmelon.
Alcohol and caffeine: relief or cause?
A drink may seem the perfect antidote to a hard day's work. As a stimulant, it releases mood-boosting serotonin. Unfortunately, too much alcohol has a depressive effect. This is because, like stress, it stimulates the release of adrenaline, increasing irritability and tension. If letting go of the day's hassles is done over a drink or two with friends, that's fine; the support of others is all part of de-stressing. If one drink has turned into several night after night, you might need to find another way to de-stress.
The same can be said for caffeine. The morning stimulant of choice for many of us, it has the same mood-boosting, adrenaline-producing effects as alcohol, plus it inhibits the brain messenger designed to make us feel drowsy. But coffee too can increase tension, irritability and exacerbate the effects of long-term stress. Limit yourself to three coffees a day and savour them, rather than drinking them quickly and mindlessly.
Eat well with these time-saving ideas
Planning ahead, particularly if you often get home late, keeping snacks (such as fresh fruit, nuts and dried fruit, and packets of pretzels) handy in case you miss a meal, and a well-stocked cupboard and freezer all make it easier to eat healthy meals. Stock up on the following:
Cupboard choices: canned tomatoes, tomato paste, dried pasta, rice and noodles, stock, soy sauce, baked beans, dried or canned lentils and chickpeas, canned fish, mixed dried herbs, and stir-fry, pasta and curry sauces.
Freezer favourites: beef steak, chicken breast fillets, stir-fry vegies, prawns, bread and fresh stock.
For quick and easy meal ideas, check out the "5pm panic!" ideas each month in HFG. Some favourite dishes include:
Honey mustard chicken: cook chicken breast fillets with runny honey, grainy mustard and garlic, and serve with vegetables.
Baked potatoes: fill with beans, tasty or cottage cheese, add chopped capsicum, chilli mince or canned fish and sweet corn.
Beef stir-fry: add fresh vegetables, noodles and cashew nuts.
Tuna pasta: tuna (fresh or canned), spaghetti, vegetables and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Omelette: make with 2 or 3 eggs, chopped tomato and chives, and serve with bread or add cooked potatoes to the omelette.
Prawn kebabs: serve with couscous.
Pita pizza: pita bread, tomato paste and topping choices such as tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, capsicum and ham.
Burritos: with refried or chilli beans, grated carrot and zucchini, and finished off with grated cheese.
The stress response
Adrenaline is our number one survival hormone, releasing glucose for instant fuel. Adrenaline is the reason why sprinting from danger is easier than your relaxed daily jog.
Closely related, noradrenaline is your other "quick response" hormone.
Cortisol, the back-up hormone, keeps the body's energy levels up, ensuring extra fuel goes to the body parts that need it the most, such as your brain, heart, lungs and muscles.
Cortisol also increases the oxygen supply by narrowing your arteries, raising your heart rate and increasing your breathing rate.
For some reason "oral gratification" is a common theme during stress, be it eating, smoking, drinking or simply biting your fingernails. If you are trying to control your weight, becoming stressed can cause you to slip off the rails. This in turn can lead to more stress.
From a young age we learn food can make us feel better as well as nourish our body. Scientists have shown that when animals are given stress hormones, they show pleasure-seeking behaviour, mirroring our preference for favourite foods at times when the going is tough.
If your comfort foods are those that cause weight gain or feelings of guilt, finding other alternatives will help reduce stress.
Get some fresh air and exercise by going for a walk or take a relaxing bath rather than grabbing the nearest chocolate bar. Should this fail, there's always retail therapy – just stay away from food shops!