Stress: Eat well to help your body cope


Stress! A word that is thrown about all too often. Whether it is work stress or family stress or social stress, we all experience some degree of stress. When does the stress in our lives become a problem? Some people seem to thrive on the continuous adrenaline rush of being under constant pressure. Others stumble at the first hurdle.

I remember learning about stress at varsity (which was a very long time ago!) Now I just try my best to manage my stress - as do most of the people who enter my office. From what I remember, there are basically 2 types of stress: Eustress and distress. Eustress is good stress. It means we are getting just the right amount of stress in order to function at our best. Distress means that we are trying to handle too much. Living and working in Johannesburg means that the people I see are most often trying to juggle a corporate career, raising a family and trying to make sure their security measures are up to scratch.

We live under an enormous amount of pressure! And something has to give!
Stress! Eat well to help your body cope
  • Stress! Eat well to help your body cope

Coping and adaptation to stress

The human body has an amazing ability to adapt to changes in the environment in order to maintain a state of homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the purposeful maintenance of a stable internal environment maintained by coordinated physiologic processes that oppose change. Pathophysiology - Chapter 9

The factors that affect our ability to adapt to stress are:
  • Previous experience and learning
  • Physiologic and anatomic reserve
  • Time
  • Genetic endowment
  • Age
  • Health status
  • Nutrition
  • Sleep-wake cycles
  • Hardiness
  • Psychosocial factors

Although all of these factors are important to consider when it comes to managing our stress response, as a dietician, I am most interested in nutrition and how it can support the body and ensure an appropriate stress response.

Nutrition and stress

One of the first things to go when we are faced with chronic stress is a healthy diet. Comfort and convenience become first prize. Many people find comfort in food. But salads and whole grains hold little attraction when it comes to foods that give us an instant lift. It is chocolate, chips, and fried foods that grab our attention. Foods that offer very little in nutritional value. Grabbing a take away or a ready meal on the way home takes the place of good old fashioned home cooking.

One of the other things to go when we are faced with chronic stress and too many commitments is exercise. The last thing you feel like doing after a long, rough day is hitting the gym. Your favourite chair and the tv remote have much greater allure.

This combination of poor nutrition and lack of exercise places your already stressed body under even greater stress. It means that the resources that your body needs to draw on in order to maintain a state of homeostasis are depleted. This, combined with the stress response in your body results in:
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Weakened immune system
  • High blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • Greater risk of heart attack
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Tense, sore muscles
  • Increased chance of depression and anxiety

How to eat well to help your body cope with stress

Eat a good breakfast. Make the time in the morning, before the rush of the day begins, to sit down and eat a good, balanced breakfast that contains protein, low GI carbohydrates as well as some fruit or vegetables. It makes it easier to make better food choices during the rest of the day and ensures that you have a sustained energy boost first thing in the morning.

Remember to eat lunch. Whether you are an executive, sitting at your desk or in meetings all day, or a mother who has to run around with her kids the minute the school bell rings, it is important to remember to give your body a boost at around midday. By now all the energy you ate at breakfast has been used up and it is time to refill the tank. Again, make it balanced.

Plan your suppers. Take 10 minutes over the weekend to plan what you are going to eat at supper time for the coming week. Make it simple and take your activities for each day into consideration. Then, go shopping so that your have everything you need. For some quick weekday supper inspiration, click here.

Choose your snacks wisely. It is all too easy to grab a chocolate or a packet of chips form the vending machine. This habit may make you feel better straight away, but it will leave you feeling tired not too long afterwards. Plan ahead for snacks. Try keeping some nuts, fruit, dried fruit, yoghurt, whole wheat crackers, biltong or some popcorn at the office for the mid morning and mod afternoon nibbles.

Drink lots of water. I have heard the same story way too often. Either "it is rude to say no when a client offers me coffee in a meeting", or "we have a lady that just brings the coffee and I keep forgetting to ask her to bring me water instead". Your body needs water to function at its best. Drink your 6 to 8 glasses per day.

Aim to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and/or veggies a day. Fruit and veggies not only supply the body with the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients it needs to manage stress, it is also a brilliant source of fibre and water.

Include whole grain or low GI carbs. These will give you a sustained release of energy, making sure that your blood sugar levels remain relatively stable, not rising too high and not dropping too low. Carbs are the body's preferred source of energy. They help to ensure that you make it to the end of the day, without falling off the wagon.

Eat protein with every meal. Apart from helping you to feel fuller for longer, protein has many functions in the body. It forms the building blocks of protein which is used to build muscle, and repair tissue, it is also a component of enzymes and antibodies.

Avoid caffeine and sugar. Although both caffeine and sugar give you almost immediate energy, they tend to sap your energy if you rely on them too much, which results in your just eating or drinking more and more.

Consider supplements. During times of chronic stress, especially if you are not eating well, nutritional supplements can be a useful too to help your body cope. Consider taking a vitamin B-complex, Vitamin C and magnesium.

For most of us our stressors are here to stay. Hopefully our good eating habits are too!

Wendy Signature