We all feel stress at at one time or another. And certainly within the past 2 years, there has been an increasing need for stress management resources. Stress puts a strain on more than just your mental health. Stress has an impact on every system of your body- including sleep patterns, menstrual cycle (in women), immune function, blood pressure and even blood sugar levels. Here, I discuss how maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress can be managed. I will talk about how elevated stress levels can affect your body as a whole, which nutrients you need more of when stressed, and also give tips on how to manage stress.
Stress affects every system of your body in one way or another. The good news is that with small lifestyle changes, you can better manage your stress levels in order to maintain a stable state of health and mind.
Effects of Stress on Your Body
First, I would like to start by talking about how stress affects you. There are all different types of stress. There is work stress, stress over your own health or the health of a loved one, financial stress, stress over your children, relationships, upcoming events, etc. The list goes on and on. However no matter what type(s) of stress you are experiencing, it’s killing you. Literally killing you. And eventually, over long periods of stressful time, the effects begin to show physically on the outside as well.
Stress is commonly associated with negative emotions and experiences, but this is not always the case. Certain life stressors are “good”, such as getting married, getting a promotion, moving to a new house, etc. Stress is simply a response to physical and emotional demands. Whenever we feel stressed this usually means that the demands of the situation exceed all our available resources. Generally when we talk about stress in our lives, we are talking about ‘stressors’. For the purposes of this article I will mainly be referring to negatively associated stressors and their effects on the human body.
Stress and Brain Health
Ultimately, it is our brain that decides what is stressful. It also determines our behavioral and physiological responses, whether health-promoting or health-damaging. This process involves a multitude of chemical, neurological and hormonal processes, which is very complex and beyond my scope of practice. However, many studies have shown significant effects of stress on brain function which I will touch on. I will do my best to keep explanations simple and understandable.
I will start by stating that prolonged stress can contribute to many negative conditions ranging from mental illness and depression to actually shrinking the volume of your brain.
Chronic stress can also result in long-term changes to your brain. This may explain why some people are more prone to mood and anxiety disorders later on in life, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Socially stressful events have also been shown to kill new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for the formation of new memories, learning, and emotions. In particular, studies show that people with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) have smaller hippocampi than those without PTSD.
With that, it is also important to note that different kinds of stress affect the brain in different ways. Recent stressful events (job loss, car accident) can affect emotional awareness. Whereas traumatic events (death of a loved one, serious illness) have a greater impact on mood centers. And an accumulation of stressful events may make it more challenging for you to deal with future stresses, particularly if future stresses are more demanding of your emotions and efforts to overcome it.
Stress and Immune System
Stress also plays a role in your immune health. For instance, those under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses and common colds along with other infections. This is due to the fact that stress decreases your body’s ability to release antibodies to fight these off.
In fact, high levels of chronic stress actually PROMOTE the inflammatory process. This leads to fatigue, decreased appetite and a state of listlessness, or having little interest in anything- usually associated with depression.
Stress and Heart Health
Have you ever been under a large amount of stress and noticed that your heart was beating very rapidly? If so, then it should be no surprise to hear that stress also increases your blood pressure.
Several studies show a strong association between stress and cardiovascular diseases. Again, this is due to chemical, neurological and hormonal reactions stemming initially from you brain.
During times of stress, your adrenaline and cortisol levels rise. Your blood vessels also narrow which is what leads to the increase in blood pressure. The heart has to pump harder and faster. Over long periods of high stress, this can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke and/or sudden heart attack.
Likewise, blood cholesterol levels also rise during times of stress. If you have persistent high levels of cholesterol and other fatty substances in your blood, this may cause atherosclerosis, which may lead to a heart attack.
High cortisol levels are also associated with accumulation of abdominal fat leading to obesity, which is risk factor for heart disease and other chronic diseases.
Stress and your GI System
Often times, increased stress is linked to disturbances in eating habits and hormone levels. These factors may effect your GI system, leading to heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation. And if you already have a GI disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease, increased stress may aggravate your condition. Have you ever experienced diarrhea or gotten sick to your stomach after being put under sudden stress?
Other gastrointestinal problems resulting from increased stress include cramping, bloating, inflammation and loss of appetite. Much of this is due to the fact that your gut is controlled in part by the central nervous system in your brain. Because of this connection, the gut has been called by some scientists as a “second brain“.
5 Vitamins and Minerals You Need When Stressed
Your body and brain rely on proper nutrition in order to function. You need various nutrients to maintain a steady balance or a homeostatic state. Various B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, iron and zinc are used to regulate the stress response by helping to produce the appropriate hormones, etc. In contrast, the same vitamins and minerals are also needed in order to regulate the calming process by synthesizing serotonin- a neurotransmitter needed to return your body and mind to a stable state.
So as you can see, you body uses these nutrients during times of stress and again during the calming period following stress in order to regulate itself. For this reason, you need to increase your intake of the following nutrients.
As mentioned above, you need specific B vitamins during times of stress in order to make appropriate hormones and neurotransmitters- specifically adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. B vitamins also lower blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
High levels of homocysteine are not a good thing. Homocysteine is associated with stress and puts you at risk for several heart conditions, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and colorectal cancer.
Overall, maintaining appropriate levels of B vitamins show improvement in symptoms of stress and regulate mood and energy levels.
Foods High in B Vitamins
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a water-soluble antioxidant that plays a special role in stress management. The brain and adrenal glands are organs with the highest concentration of vitamin C. So a lack of vitamin C will affect your brain functioning and therefore your ability to cope with stress.
Our bodies cannot make vitamin C for us, so we have to get enough from food sources.
And remember earlier when talking about stress and brain health, I mentioned the hippocampus? Vitamin C deficiency is associated with a 10-15% decrease in the volume of the hippocampus. This lower volume leads to learning and memory impairment.
So when you experience stress, make sure to consume some of the following foods daily to prevent decreasing brain volume!
Foods High in Vitamin C
Magnesium is a mineral that we associate with making adrenaline and neurotransmitters during stressful times. Studies show a correlation between low magnesium levels and increased stress. Similarly, animal and human studies show that when subjects are exposed to stress, their magnesium levels decline. This has a negative impact on brain functioning. Because of this, you are less likely to cope with stress effectively.
Foods High in Magnesium
Iron deficiency anemia is a condition that many people all over the world suffer from. Studies actually show that psychological stress may decrease serum iron levels in your blood and bone marrow by decreasing absorption. More research of course needs to be conducted, however studies have shown this correlation in rats.
Comparably, human studies show a correlation as well, stating that people with psychological disorders appear to have low iron levels. For example, iron levels are lower in schizophrenics than in non-schizophrenic individuals. Similar results are seen in depressed individuals. Interestingly, these patients also display lower zinc levels, which is the next micronutrient I will discuss.
Foods High in Iron
Zinc is the final micronutrient I will discuss in regards to stress. A lack of dietary zinc may lead to depression, anxiety, emotional instability and other mood-related disorders. This is because zinc helps stabilize cortisol levels in your body. Like the previously listed nutrients, when you experience stress, your zinc levels decrease. This leads to an increase in cortisol. Which if you remember from the above section on “Stress and Heart Health“, prolonged high cortisol levels leads to an accumulation of abdominal fat and obesity.
Foods High in Zinc
Eating During Times of Stress
As you can see, maintaining a healthful diet during times of stress may seem overwhelming. So many nutrients to make sure you’re getting enough of that meal planning may seem impossible. And if you are like most people, you fall at either one end of the spectrum or the other when it comes to the amount of food you eat during times of stress.
You may either 1) eat very little due to lack of appetite or 2) eat everything due to stress eating, finding yourself in the kitchen craving foods you know aren’t the healthiest.
When Appetite Decreases
If you fall into the category of those who lose an appetite during stressful times, then you will need to make sure you consuming enough. You must also make sure you are consuming the appropriate nutrients such as the ones listed throughout this article.
One suggestion to help promote your appetite is to try some light exercise prior to your meal. Secondly, it may be beneficial to plan your meals ahead of time, including 6-8 small meals each day. Keep in mind, you may have to eat when you aren’t very hungry, every bite counts!
Setting the mood during meal times may also help. This means preparing a pleasant environment with appropriate lighting, including music if you like. Asking a family member or friend is also a good suggestion. Good company contributes to a great social eating experience. And of course, preparing foods that you fully enjoy – possibly ones with a pleasant mouthfeel and aroma.
Try your best not to skip meals and include snacks 2-3 times a day. Try the following meal pattern: [Breakfast, Snack, Lunch, Snack, Dinner, Snack].
Stay hydrated throughout the day and drink calorie dense beverages if needed, especially if under periods of prolonged stress or if you’ve noticed weight loss.
Rest is also very beneficial to recharging your body and mind. Getting a good night’s sleep (or nap during the day) will help decrease stress by increasing your ability to cope with stress.
When Appetite Increases
If you fall into the category of those who’s appetite increases greatly during stressful times, then you will need to make sure you don’t consume more than you need. If you consume more than what your body needs, you will notice weight gain over time. You must also make sure you are consuming the appropriate nutrients such as the ones listed throughout this article.
Focus on getting enough protein. Protein rich foods can be filling. Similarly, fiber-rich foods are filling.
Plan your meals ahead of time and make sure to balance meals, getting an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables daily. Adding fruits and vegetables will add nutrients without adding many calories.
Stay hydrated, but make sure most of your beverages are low calorie- think water.
Sit down at meal times, eating slowly and mindfully. Alternate bites of food with sips of water and really savor the smell, taste and feel of the foods you are eating. Eating too fast may lead to overeating – which in turn may add excess calories, leading to weight gain.
Follow correct portion sizes and read nutrition labels. Whichever foods you choose to eat, even if high calorie, make sure to eat only the recommended portion size listed.
Tips for Reducing Stress Levels
Whether you are an individual that eats everything when stressed or eats almost nothing when stressed, there are so many suggestions out there on how to manage your appetite. There are also many suggestions on how to reduce stress levels.
Try some of the following helpful tips to reduce stress levels:
- Get some sleep– good sleep quality and quantity brings clearer thinking and lower stress levels.
- Find good social support– talking with others and being social gives a sense of connection that reduces depression and stress.
- Change your outlook on life– try to stay positive and find the good in situations.
- Maintain a healthy diet– aside from the nutrients listed above, include a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives, lean protein, and limit foods higher in sodium, sugars, saturated fat and sodium.
- Avoid smoking– and avoid being around those who smoke in order to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Limit alcoholic beverages– alcohol acts as a Central Nervous System depressant which slows down your brain.
- Get regular moderate physical activity– physical activity will release chemicals in your body called endorphins which trigger positive feelings.
- Participate in relaxing activities– read a good book, listen to some relaxing music, take a warm bath with lavender essential oils, etc.
As you can see, stress can have a major impact on your entire body as a whole, starting with your brain. Controlling and managing stress levels is important for maintaining a steady state of health. Making specific lifestyle or dietary changes can help tremendously. In terms of diet, make sure to eat plenty of foods high in vitamin C, vitamin B complex, iron, magnesium and zinc. Include some of the many lifestyle tips listed above as well.
Managing stress levels is a crucial issue because the prevention of later disease is very important for full enjoyment of life.
And no matter if you tend to eat more or less during stressful times, remember that nutrition is vital to every aspect of healing. If you don’t eat properly, you won’t have the nutrients to function properly.
For more on stress, heart health and tips for reducing stress levels, see my post, “5 Things You Can Do to Support Heart Health NOW!”
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Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 13 years of experience. She has a degree in psychology as well as dietetics. She is also a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ and its Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group among others. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.