Stress is something that affects us more than ever. Some of us are keeping a brave front and announce with almost slight arrogance: “I don’t get stressed, I just get on with it!”. Stress is actually good for us. However, It becomes toxic when it controls our response.
Stress is triggered by a thought. The main role of our brain is to produce thoughts. Therefore, controlling our thoughts is not possible. However, what we can control is our response to that particular thought. The medical definition for stress is “the perception of a real or imagined threat to your body or your ego”. It could be a car accident. Or, it could be your belief that your manager is annoying by chasing you on certain projects you lead. Either way, it is your perception of that particular event as a stress that creates a stress response in your body.
The fight or flight response
There is an entire chemical reaction that follows in the body as a consequence of a stressful thought.
The hypothalamus, located in your brain, stimulates your adrenal glands (situated on top of your kidneys) and your thyroid (located in front of your neck) to produce certain chemicals (hormones). These raise your heart rate, blood pressure, initiate the liver to send glucose (energy) to the muscles. However, at the same time they initiate calcium to be released from your bones into your blood (to help blood clotting) and they shut down non-essential functions (like digestion, immune system, repair and regeneration). Consequently, prolonged periods of stress makes us more susceptible to ageing, digestive issues and chronic diseases.
2 ways to regulate the stress response
There are 2 major way of how to regulate the stress response:
- Through food and what we eat
- Through how we perceive stress and strengthening a particular area of our brain
How food and what we eat have an impact on the stress response
When the fight or flight response is activated glucose is released into the blood with the aim to be sent to your muscles to literally help you run away from the situation. However, most of the times today, there is no way to run. So the glucose levels need to come back to normal. That is when you start to feel tired and to increase the energy we tend to reach out for snacks and cakes. And the vicious circle begins again.
Another way we release the stress response is through stimulants: caffeine and nicotine. These initiate the release of the stress hormones that have the same effect to the body. As such, they initiate the release of glucose back into the blood. The levels will have to normalise, so your energy comes down. Again, you will be looking for that snack, cake or coffee to get you back up again.
Longer term this increases your fat deposits. This is why you hear that stress makes you fat. This is because cortisol ( a stress hormone released in the blood) causes the blood sugar to rise and when this is not used to make energy (most likely the case when we are stressed) the body deposits it for later.
What to eat to regulate the stress response
The objective is to keep you blood sugar low or even.
1.Eat slow carbohydrates
- Eat in moderation whole grains (brown pasta, brown rice, rye, spelt, quinoa, oats) and instead of refined grains (white pasta, white bread, white rice);
- Eat in moderation higher fibre root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, beetroot, sweet potatoes, celeriac) instead of faster release root vegetables (white potatoes);
- Quantity of carbohydrates counts so aim for 1/4 of your plate to be whole grains OR root veg;
- The way you cook the carbohydrates can make them fast carbohydrates. So frying (like sweet potato fries), roasting makes these faster release. Choose steamed or boiled.
2. Increase fat
- While fat can be used for energy, this only happens when you eat very few carbohydrates;
- Fat will keep you feeling fuller for longer;
- It doesn’t initiate glucose release or stress hormone release;
- Choose oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil.
3. Eat moderate protein
- Protein helps slow down the release of glucose when you pair it with slow carbohydrate;
- Help you feeling fuller;
4. Reduce stimulants
- Caffein has some benefits but as anything when we drink 4-5 coffees/ black teas a day it actually does more harm;
- Reduce your caffeine intake to 1-2 drinks and aim to have them before lunch as otherwise it will disturb sleep (caffeine can stay in the body for 11 hours);
- When it comes to quitting smoking, it is best to work with a nutritionist to be able to help you with the side effects;
5. Reduce alcohol
Alcohol acts as a sedative. This is why so many people have a glass most days when they came from home. It helps them relax. However, it has an impact on the quality of the sleep. It might help you fall asleep but you will not get those restorative and regenerative sleep cycles that you need to be able to fight stress and fatigue.
What can I do beyond food to manage stress
First of all is about working with your perceptions or in other words with your point of view on situations that create stress, worry or annoyance.
Secondly, it is about taking your brain to the gym. The stress response happens quicker because our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that deals with analytical thinking, empathy and compassion) is not strong enough. One proven way to do this is through meditation.
I will explain more about this topic in a future post.
Keto avocado smoothie
- 1 avocado stone removed
- 8 cm length cucumber
- 1 kiwi peeled
- 1/2 lemon juice + peel
- large handful spinach
- 1/4 small glass coconut cream
- 1/2 small glass almond milk
- 5 leaves mint
- Put all ingredients into a blender and blitz until smooth.