Did you know that April is Stress Awareness Month? It feels ironic that this month coincides with the coronavirus pandemic, a time in which just about everyone is feeling some degree of stress. This month on our blog, we’ll be focusing on topics related to eating and stress. We’ll talk about the stress response and what it means for our eating habits and metabolism, how to recognize and overcome (or make peace with) stress-eating, and we’ll give you some tips for de-stressing.
What is the Stress Response?
When we’re stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which is part of the natural stress response. Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream, giving our bodies fuel to handle stressful or dangerous situations.
It’s totally healthy and normal for our bodies to release cortisol in situations that are actually stressful and dangerous (like a car accident, in an emergency, or before a big interview). That rush of cortisol helps us make decisions and focus on the task at hand. However, if we’re constantly stressed out, the prolonged release of cortisol can actually hurt us. Long-term elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, hormone imbalances, fertility problems and more.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in our bodies when we’re stressed:
Do you tend to make healthy food choices when you’re stressed? If not, you’re not alone – most people don’t! Studies actually show that stress can cause us to make less healthy food choices. When you’re in a “fight or flight” mode, you will naturally crave foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates, which provide a quick source of energy to your brain. Long-term, choosing foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates (like bread, crackers, pastries, chips and other snacks) can lead to unintentional weight gain and inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is linked to depression, obesity and other diseases.
There’s a huge connection between the gut and brain, which is an exciting and emerging field of research. When your body goes into “fight or flight” mode, the digestive system slows down, which causes stomach discomfort, indigestion and even constipation. Next time your anxiety spikes, pay attention to how your stomach feels. People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or irritable bowel disease (Crohn’s and colitis) actually have fewer symptoms when they’re able to manage stress.
When fight or flight is initiated, cortisol constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure, which helps to deliver oxygenated blood to your organs. Again, this is a totally normal response in times of actual danger, but if the response is prolonged, that can cause blood vessel damage and buildup of plaque, which can lead to heart attack.
How can you manage your stress response?
One of the best ways to manage stress is by practicing stress management activities. Some ways to manage stress include exercise, mindfulness and meditation, breathing exercises and spending time in nature. Choose an activity that makes you feel calm and put it into practice next time you feel stressed!
In addition to stress management, there are certain foods that may promote or prevent the inflammation that comes along with prolonged stress response.
Foods that promote inflammation include foods that are high in refined starches (like white bread, white pasta and pastries), sugar (dessert and sweets), saturated fats (red meat, butter, dark meat chicken, baked goods, fried foods) and trans fats. Avoiding, or limiting, these foods may help reduce the inflammation in your body.
Choosing foods that have anti-inflammatory properties may help decrease the levels of cortisol in your body, which can control the inflammation that occurs during stressful situations. Anti-inflammatory foods include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are those found in olive oil, fish, fish oil, walnuts and flaxseeds. (If you’re consuming flax for its omega-3 properties, be sure to buy the seeds whole and grind them yourself before eating. Unfortunately, pre-ground flax seeds contain less omega-3s than the whole version).
The takeaway? Stress is a normal reaction that can be beneficial in some situations, but leads to trouble if we’re consistently feeling stressed. Self-care activities and eating a balanced diet can help reduce some of the negative effects of the stress response.