Stress is defined as a state of mental and/or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. While stress has always been a part of the human experience, our ancestors were not exposed to most of the types of stress we deal with today. We also have significantly higher stress levels in our lives compared to even 25 years ago (source). Because of this, it has become increasingly important for us to be able to manage stress efficiently. Read on to learn about how to better manage stress through dietary and lifestyle changes.
How does stress affect the body?
Acute stress triggers the fight-or-flight response in the body, which makes the assumption that we are either going to have to fight the impending threat, or run from it. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, stress usually meant that we were in mortal danger, and our bodies still use this mechanism today when we encounter a stressful situation. However, in this day and age, most of our stressful situations are not actually life-threatening. When something triggers a stress response (such as a surprise performance review with your boss, or being stuck in traffic) our adrenal glands immediately release the hormones, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol (among other stress hormones), into our blood stream. This causes physiological changes including racing pulse, increased breathing rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, and many others. This is beneficial for short-term stress (such as getting chased by an animal) because it gives us a temporary boost of energy and endurance to deal with the immediate problem.
Chronic stress, however, is where we start seeing a problem. Chronic stress can come in many forms such as work deadlines, taking on too many tasks, financial problems, relationship problems, health issues, and so on. The problem is that these are every day occurrences. Every single time we experience one of these situations, our adrenal glands are releasing stress hormones into our body. This constant release of stress hormones can create many imbalances in the body, but most notably a cortisol imbalance. Cortisol, also known as ‘the stress hormone’, is vital for our circadian rhythm. Ideally, cortisol cycles throughout the day, being high in the morning (contributing to our morning alertness), tapering off in the afternoon, and being low before we go to sleep at night (source). Chronic stress increases overall cortisol levels, but can also disrupt the natural cortisol cycle.
When the cortisol cycle is imbalanced, it can become almost completely backwards from the natural cycle. This means low cortisol in the morning and high cortisol at night. Having low cortisol levels in the morning will make you feel not well rested upon waking up. You may find it hard to get out of bed and crave coffee or other stimulants to help start your day, which is because stimulants stimulate the adrenal glands to release cortisol. You may feel fatigue throughout the day due to crashes in cortisol levels (instead of slowly tapering off in the case of a balanced cycle). At night, if cortisol levels are high, you will feel awake and alert even if you felt tired throughout the day.
Disruption of the cortisol cycle can also lead to:
- high blood sugar (cortisol raises blood sugar)
- weakened immune system (cortisol suppresses immune function)
- mood imbalances
- digestive issues
- inability to lose weight (source)
Sources of Stress
While some sources of stress are fairly obvious, there are many other less obvious sources. Here are a few common causes of stress that are often overlooked.
Many environmental factors cause a stress response in the body. These include environmental pollution, use of pharmaceuticals, household cleaners, chemicals present in personal care products (toothpaste, deodorant, make up), poor air and water quality, pesticides, heavy metals, etc. These contaminants increase oxidative stress in the body. which means there are higher levels of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are responsible for many health issues such as premature ageing, heart disease, cancer, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Pollutants can also increase stress by triggering the fight-or-flight response when the body recognizes the pollutant as a foreign substance (source). These chemicals can also increase stress by damaging the intestinal lining and causing bacterial imbalances, discussed in the digestive section below.
You may notice when you are experiencing a high level of stress your digestion does not function correctly. You may not feel hungry or experience symptoms such as gas or indigestion. This is because the stress hormones being released into your body shut down the digestive process. From a biological perspective, if you are in mortal danger (what your body assumes is happening when you experience stress) your digestive function is not important at that time. What isn’t quite as well-known is that this works both ways; when you are stressed your digestion is disrupted, but when your digestion is disrupted, this creates stress. Our gut flora has an effect on our cortisol levels; good bacteria can turn off a chronic stress response, while bad bacteria (candida overgrowth or SIBO) can turn it on (source). The link between digestion and stress is part of the gut-brain connection.
Natural light cycles from blue wavelength light during the day to red wavelength light near sunset and sunrise. This is an important part of our circadian rhythm because blue wavelength light increases cortisol and suppresses melatonin production which contributes to our alertness during the day. Red wavelength light, on the other hand, does not increase cortisol or suppress melatonin production, which contributes to our relaxation and sleepiness before bed. The problem is that artificial lighting such as indoor lighting and computer screens is mostly blue wavelength light. Exposure to these artificial light sources (especially at night) disrupts our circadian rhythm by suppressing our melatonin production and increasing cortisol levels. This increases our stress directly via cortisol imbalance but also increases stress due to decreased amount and quality of sleep. Even small amounts of light while sleeping such as streetlights, night lights, alarm clocks, or other electronic devices can reduce your quality of sleep and increase stress on the body.
What Can We Do About it?
1. Avoid Stimulants
Stimulants such as coffee, black/green tea, cigarettes, chocolate, sugar, pharmaceutical pain relievers, cold and allergy medicine, and recreational drugs stimulate the adrenal glands to produce extra cortisol. This disrupts the natural cortisol cycle (as described above). It is highly important to avoid these substances when re-balancing the natural cortisol cycle and reducing overall stress. Alternatives to coffee and black/green tea include my traditional hot drink and most herbal teas. Decaf coffee and black tea are not recommended as it still contains caffeine.
2. Eat a Whole Food Diet
Eating a whole food diet is critically important as this is the best way to obtain the nutrients your body needs to manage stress properly. While supplements can be low quality and not absorbed properly in the body, whole foods always contain the most highly absorbable form of these nutrients, complete with all their important cofactors. No matter how high quality the supplement is, it will never be as good as obtaining the nutrients from real food. These nutrients include B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, enzymes, and many others. Bone broth is an excellent food to include in a stress management routine as it contains a great balance of minerals including magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.
3. Adequate Protein intake from Whole Food Sources
Protein is important for stress management because certain amino acids (tyrosine and tryptamine) are precursors to neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin, respectively) that stabilize mood and give you a feeling of relaxation and overall well-being. It is important to obtain the majority of your protein from whole food sources. If you are eating real food for all your main meals and still feel as though you need some extra protein, this is when protein powders are appropriate. Beef protein and egg white protein are both excellent paleo protein powders. Other protein powders that aren’t strictly paleo but can still be beneficial include Sun Warrior vegan protein, and clean whey proteins such as New Zealand Whey. Keep in mind that most protein powders are almost entirely protein, and fat and carbohydrates are needed to metabolize protein, especially in large amounts. It is, therefore, best to try to balance protein powders with other macro-nutrients. For example: adding a banana and some coconut milk to a protein powder smoothie.
4. Avoid processed and refined foods, chemical additives, and pharmaceuticals
Processed and refined foods lack important nutrients needed for managing stress. They also increase stress on the body by creating blood sugar imbalances. Chemical additives, emulsifiers, food dyes, MSG, and most preservatives should be avoided as much as possible because they increase oxidative stress on the body, but can also disrupt digestion and promote inflammation in the body. Chemical additives can also provoke autoimmune response in the body. Some pharmaceuticals have a stimulating effect on the body which disrupts the natural cortisol cycle. Many pharmaceuticals have a negative effect on gut flora and can also damage the lining of the intestines; both of which increases stress in the body.
5. Support Digestion and Gut Health
Having a healthy, properly functioning gut is vitally important for managing stress. Eating whole foods, and avoiding chemical additives and pharmaceuticals are all important for healthy gut lining and flora.
Here are a few other ways to support optimal gut health:
- Drink bone broth, it contains gelatin which helps heal the gastrointestinal lining
- Eat fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut, lacto-fermented vegetables, kefir
- Chew food thoroughly and avoid overeating
- Avoid eating during periods of extreme stress
- Avoid refined and processed foods, and chemical additives
- Avoid pharmaceuticals as much as possible
6. Get Adequate Sleep
Lack of sleep disrupts the cortisol cycle (source). Not only does this increase stress, but it makes us crave stimulants and junk foods. Lack of sleep also affects our willpower, making it more difficult to resist our cravings. When trying to balance cortisol, as well as most other hormones, sleep should be one of you top priorities. I could write an entire article just on sleep (I probably will, eventually!) because it is so so so important to your overall health and well-being. If you would like to learn more about how sleep deficiencies affect the body, I highly recommend this article written by Mark Sisson. While the exact amount of sleep differs for everyone, try going to bed early and not setting an alarm and see how long you sleep for (on a night that you are not sleep deficient on). This will generally be between 7-10 hours.
7. Exercise, but avoid extremes (too much or too little)
Exercising is important for stress management because it releases endorphins that relax the body, fight pain, and improve mood. However, exercising too much can have the opposite effect. Too much exercise such as marathon running actually increases cortisol in the body and has many other negative health effects such as cardiovascular disease. Moderate exercise, with variety (cardio, strength, low impact, etc), on most days is key to managing stress.
8. Avoid Light Pollution
As described above, artificial light disrupts our natural circadian rhythm and increases cortisol levels. While it is impossible to completely avoid artificial light sources in the form of indoor lighting, cell phones, and computers, there are a few things we can do to minimize their effects on the body. Avoiding artificial lighting after the sun sets, or at least a couple hours before going to bed will help. You can achieve this by using candles or lights that emit orange spectrum lighting such as the light from a salt lamp after the sun has set. If you need to use your computer after dark, you can download the app f.lux, which cycles your computer screen between blue wavelength light to red wavelength light to correspond with the sunrise and sunset. This app can help you fight insomnia brought on by using electronics late at night, and help you get better quality of sleep.
Avoiding light pollution while you sleep is also important. This includes streetlight light coming through your window, light from your alarm clock or cell phone, night lights, or sleeping in front of a TV. You want your room to be as dark as possible to ensure good quality of sleep. Any sources of artificial light while you sleep can decrease your quality of sleep and increase stress levels. Hang a thick blanket over your window or use blackout curtains, cover your alarm clock light, and avoid any extra light sources such as electronics (cell phone or laptop charging lights, light up power buttons, etc). Using a wake up light is also great because it wakes you up with light, instead of sound, which is more natural; you will feel more awake and well rested as it increases your cortisol levels (which is what you want in the morning).
9. Supplement when Necessary
If you are already doing your best to eat a whole food diet and feel that you still need something extra to help you manage stress. There are many supplements that work.
Here is a list of my top recommendations
- Cod Liver Oil is a whole food supplement that contains vitamin A, D, and omega-3s. This supplement is great for gut and immune support.
- Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant that can help with sleep issues (insomnia and/or waking up during the night) if taken before bed.
- B vitamins help fight stress by correcting nutritional deficiencies, lowering homocysteine levels, and helping to balance hormones.
- Great Lakes Gelatin (collagen hydrolysate) is a powder that can be added to smoothies to help heal the gastrointestinal lining that has been damaged from chemical additives, pharmaceuticals, or bacterial imbalance.
- Probiotics help fight stress by healing and supporting the gut, supporting immune function, and correcting bacterial imbalances.
I was super excited to do a workshop on this topic in Castlegar, BC a couple of weeks ago, so I wrote this article so I could share the workshop with my readers as well! Dannika Soukoroff presented the workshop with me and went through herbal remedies that work with stress. You can see her herbal recommendations on the handout that I designed below.
Thank you for reading my article on stress management, I hope you found it helpful! You can keep up to date with all my articles by liking the Nutrition is Medicine Facebook page, or subscribing below!