Taking care of oneself in times of stress

Stress as our everyday companion

Stress researcher Hans Selye was the first one who described stress as a “nonspecific response of the body to any demand”.1 Stress is our everyday companion, and it can arise in different ways. If we talk about stress, we usually talk about physical, mental, and emotional tension that is experienced in situations where life’s challenges exceed one’s ability to cope. So we can say that stress is a subjective phenomenon – everyone perceives it differently and reacts to stressful situations differently.

We often associate stress with negative experiences and harmful outcomes, but even Selye showed us that stress can also be good and even useful. Stress can make us act. In stressful situations, our body mobilizes all that it can and might help us to improve our exam performance or to be more productive if facing a deadline. But as chronic and long-term stress can take a toll on our physical and mental wellness, we are looking for different ways to reduce its negative effects.

Our body in times of stress

When a person encounters stress, the initial response in the body is a reaction often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. This is triggered by activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the adrenals to secrete adrenaline and other stress-related hormones.

This response is actually nature’s way to help our body to use all our resources to deal with danger. As a result, our heart rate and the force of contraction of the heart increases, and blood is shunted away from the skin and some other organs in order to supply muscles and the brain with much needed oxygen and glucose. The rate of breathing rises in order to supply the heart, brain, and muscles with much needed oxygen. In order to lower body temperature, sweat production increases. As in times of danger digestion is not the most critical bodily function, the production of digestive secretions reduces. In order to provide energy for the body to fight or flee, blood sugar levels rise dramatically.  

This phase is usually short-term, but even when the effects of the flight-or-fight response have worn off, different bodily functions still enable the body to continue fighting the stressor. This is largely influenced by different stress hormones, such as cortisol, for example. These hormones make sure that in case the body runs out of much-needed fuel like glucose, protein can be used as an energy supply, and they also promote the retention of potassium to keep blood pressure elevated.

These processes are much needed for the body if it has to face danger, but problems occur if this danger is persistent or to put it into the current context if the stressful situation persists. Prolonged stress is putting a huge load on our different organ systems, including blood vessels and the immune system, and it may increase the risk of different diseases (including high blood pressure, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, ulcers, etc.).

Support your body in times of stress

The problem nowadays is that we are faced with lots of different stressors, and we rarely find or make time to destress. Or our coping mechanisms that might seem helpful are counterproductive in reality and don’t support good health, such as drinking alcohol in order to relax. Fortunately, there are possibilities at hand to ease the negative impact stress can have on us and that we can use to replace our not-so-effective coping mechanisms. The main strategies to improve stress management include different techniques to calm the mind and the body and promote a positive attitude, but we can also take a second look at our lifestyle habits in order to help us.

Stress and lifestyle factors

If the body is not used to physical exercise, it is initially stressed. But the more we exercise, the more our body adapts to it, and exercise can become a good stress-reduction technique. For example, physical activity helps to fight fatigue, improve alertness, and helps to improve sleep, which in turn helps to reduce stress.2

It is wise to assume that nutrition can also play an important role in fighting stress. Our bodily processes need different nutrients and chemicals to function, and our main source of many needed nutrients is the food we eat.  Thus, in times of stress and anxiety, we need to support our body’s biochemistry as much as we can. How can we do this?

☕️ Restrict caffeine intake

Caffeine is found mainly in coffee, green tea, cocoa, and energy drinks. It is true that caffeine when ingested in moderate amounts is well tolerated by the body, and there is even research indicating that low dosages can reduce anxiety and elevate mood, but negative impacts can occur if caffeine is consumed in high dosages.

In that case the symptoms might include anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness. Sensitive individuals seems to be more prone to caffeine’s negative impact. For instance, higher sensitivity has been observed in people suffering with panic disorder and other psychiatric disorders, and to a lesser extent in case of depression.3 So if you feel that you are prone to stress and anxiety, it is a good idea to restrict your caffeine intake. Try not to drink more than 2-3 cups of coffee a day, and, if needed, try to find decaffeinated alternatives.  

🍩 Try to eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet and eat regularly

During times of stress we can sometimes gain weight. The reason for this might be connected to the release of cortisol in times of stress. Cortisol directly effects fat storage and weight gain in stressed individuals, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance and obesity. It has been found that cortisol predisposes our body to increase abdominal fat. It helps to relocate fat to the abdominal area and make it more available in case there is a need for additional energy. Unfortunately, high levels of abdominal fat increase the risk of different cardiovascular diseases, type II diabetes, and stroke.4,5

Cortisol also influences our blood glucose levels and fluctuations that can be a contributing factor to insulin resistance. In order to help our body to stabilize the blood glucose levels, avoid refined carbohydrates (sugar, white flour) and irregular eating times that can contribute to poor blood sugar control. Choose to eat unrefined carbohydrates instead. Replace white bread with graham bread, eat wholegrain black bread, and choose fruit over sweets. Choose unrefined pasta over refined pasta, cut back on sweets and pastries, and bring more vegetables into your everyday meals. Don’t forget to eat regularly and not too late in the evening! This helps to keep your blood sugar in balance and to cope better with stress.

🥑 Eat whole foods in order to get much-needed nutrients to cope with stress

Our bodily processes are dependent on different nutrients. For example, magnesium status is highly associated with stress levels,6 so make sure that your diet is rich in magnesium. The best sources of magnesium are different seeds – for example, hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds, but also cocoa and parsley.

Another nutrient that is involved in stress response is vitamin C.7 So in order to have enough vitamin C to help your body to cope with stress, make sure you have fresh vegetables and fruits on your menu. The best sources of vitamin C are dog rose berries, bell pepper, different herbs, berries, kale, and broccoli. It has been found that B vitamins can help to support body and mood in stressful times.8

To ensure you get a variety of B vitamins from your food, eat a varied diet that contains unrefined grain products, some meat and poultry, leafy greens, and legumes. To support your nervous system, you also need omega-3 fatty acids. The best source of omega-3 is fish. Eat fish 2-3 times a week. Omega-3 can be obtained also from plant sources; for example, it is found in rapeseed oil, hemp oil, linseeds, and chia seeds.

Stress is our everyday companion, and each and one of us has different coping mechanisms in dealing with it. Although we are different, we can all benefit from taking a second look at our habitual coping mechanisms and enhancing them if needed. Striving toward a more varied and wholesome diet is good for our overall health, and helps us also to better cope with stress.

Sirli Kivisaar

Functional nutritional therapy practitioner

Sirli Kivisaar. Image credit: private collection

The material used for conducting the article:

1. Siang Yong Tan., A Yip. (2018). Hans Selye (1907–1982): Founder of the stress theory. Singapore Med J, Apr; 59(4): 170–171.

2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Physical activity reduces stress”, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-reduces-st (visited 12.01.22)

3. Richards, A., Smith, A. (2015).Caffeine consumption and self-assessed stress, anxiety, and depression in secondary school children. J Psychopharmacol. Dec; 29(12): 1236–1247.

4. Epel, E.S., McEwen, B., Seeman, T., et al. (2000). Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat.
Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 623-632.

5. Maglione-Garves, C. A., Kravitz, L., Schneider, S. (2005). Cortisol connection: Tips on managing stress and weight. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 9(5), 20-23.

6. Vink, R., Nechifor, M., editors. (2011). Magnesium in the Central Nervous System. Adelaide (AU): University of Adelaide Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/

7. Marik, P.E. Vitamin C: an essential “stress hormone” during sepsis (2020). J Thorac Dis. Feb; 12(Suppl 1): S84–S88.

8. Young, L.M., et al. (2019). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of B Vitamin Supplementation on Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety, and Stress: Effects on Healthy and ‘At-Risk’ Individuals. Nutrients. Sep; 11(9): 2232.

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