Through all my studies in nutrition over this past year, one subject I didn't really expect to learn much about was stress. I mean, what does that have to do with nutrition anyway, right? WRONG!!! To my surprise, I learned just how great an impact this natural response can have on us, inside and out, from head to toe, and especially the middle!
First, it’s important to understand that stress is natural. As a matter of fact, the word eustress means “good stress,” the kind that motivates us to take action. Distress, on the other hand, is the type of stress that we find ourselves in too often, unable to manage it, watching it wreak havoc on our health over time.
Your body on stress…
Stress turns on our sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight response,” pumping out epinephrine from our adrenal glands and cortisol, which raises blood sugar levels and blood pressure to get us out of the situation. While this is a natural mechanism, its overuse can be detrimental.
Cortisol is actually needed in higher levels earlier in the day, to get us going, then wanes off in the evening so we can sleep, but if it’s in high gear at night, trying to help our bodies handle stress, we won’t sleep. It’s over production can also cause excess belly fat.
And after a surge of glucose released by the liver, our pancreas starts secreting insulin in an effort to maintain our blood sugar levels. When we later hit a blood sugar dip, our bodies need to replenish the loss, so what do we go for?...anything that will give us immediate energy: donuts, coffee, cookies, sweet tea, anything sweet! This creates a cycle that I’m sure many of us are familiar with.
Once we have “escaped the danger” that ignited the distress in the first place, the body seeks balance. That’s when the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, in what's called the "rest and digest phase," but only if we allow it to happen.
After surviving an “episode,” I can just hear our bodies now: “Whew, we survived another attack!” Many of our days are consumed with putting out fire after fire, and we don't give out bodies the chance to rest.
As you can imagine, attack after attack will soon put the body into a state of adrenal fatigue, where it can’t even respond properly to the stress. You might feel sluggish, lack energy, feel unmotivated. This adrenal fatigue can also cause other hormonal imbalances, which could lead to low thyroid -where our metabolism slows down and we experience weight gain, dry skin, loss of hair, loss of motivation- as well as infertility, just to name a few imbalances.
Not only do we wear ourselves out, putting ourselves in the worst position to make the best nutrition choices, but when we undergo stress, we can experience indigestion, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and even malnutrition. Think about it: when you are trying to run from a tiger, all of your energy is there: blood pumping to the heart, legs, and arms, helping you to run faster, and in our current day situation, it sends a message to our brain to try to solve the problem, not to digest food. So even the “healthiest eater” could have health issues if her body is not able to assimilate the nutrients she consumes!
At this point, you may be thinking, I’ve got to manage my stress levels!” And I couldn’t agree more! Here are some helpful guidelines to get you going:
Re-evaluate every decision and commitment that you’ve made, then prioritize them. If they do not rank high enough on your valued items, scratch them off!
Learn to say, “No, thank you.” Over-committing is a big culprit of stress!
Make plans and preparations. This is especially important when it comes to nourishing ourselves, in all ways: food, movement, spiritual practices, self-care.
Know your triggers and try to avoid them or learn how to respond to them. Prepare yourself by imagining the outcome that you desire. Even when unusually stressful situations arise, having previously envisioned a positive response to a stressor will likely encourage you to take the appropriate next-step action, such as deep breaths or a short walk instead of running for a cookie or coffee.
And finally, for those “type A” personalities, don’t sweat the small stuff! I know that’s so much easier said than done, but it all starts with knowing your purpose and values, keeping an open-mind and curiosity about life, embracing each experience as an opportunity for life to teach you, and consistent practices that allow you to explore who you are and allow you to express yourself.