Definition of stress
Understanding what stress actually is and what you can do if your health is affected by it is essential for living an optimally healthy life.
My best definition of stress is anything that prompts your body to mount a ‘stress response’. In response to stress, your heart rate increases, and blood vessels widen, your pupils dilate, energy shifts from housekeeping processes such as digestion, to your muscles instead and your body cleverly increases the level of sugar in your blood. All of these changes happen to make sure you are ready to fight or take flight. Your body interprets ‘stress’ as an immediate threat that you need to take action to deal with, and if you find yourself in an emergency situation (being chased by an angry dog or similar!) these physiological changes will make you much better equipped to do that.
21st century stress is different
Unfortunately, modern day stresses are often very different. 21st century stresses are more often mental or emotional such as ongoing relationship conflict, financial worries, feeling unhappy in your job, children struggling at school, a hectic daily commute, past trauma, bereavement or even constantly trying to lose weight or exercise more and feeling bad when you don’t. These types of stress can sometimes seem less obvious and can bubble under the surface, seemingly hidden until something snaps (like a health crisis).
Chronic stress is damaging to your health
Everyone has a certain level of stress in life and in fact, this is healthy. In his book, ‘The Stress of Life’, Hans Selye, famously wrote, ‘without stress there would be no life’. It’s only when stress becomes chronic and out of control that it becomes a problem that can negatively affect your health.
How to deal with stress
The first step to dealing with stress is acknowledging that it’s there. You have to first shine a light of awareness onto a problem before you can start to solve it. If you’re unsure where your stress levels are currently at, you can complete a simple questionnaire, which will give you a good indication whether they have reached unhealthy proportions.
If your stress levels are too high you then need to take action:
1) Identify the source of stress and take steps to reduce it
2) Nourish your body with a well-balanced diet and key nutrients that will help to support a balanced stress response
3) Incorporate lifestyle changes into your weekly routine that will help you to better cope with life’s stresses when they come along. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, Pilates, swimming and walking are just a few activities that can help you to cope better with stress
Top 5 Nutrients to Cope with Stress
The right nutrition can have a dramatic impact on your ability to cope with stress. Here’s the key nutrients that may help to support a balanced response to stress, helping you to feel calmer and more relaxed.
Often nicknamed nature’s tranquilliser, magnesium has an important role to play in helping the body to cope with stress. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that a deficiency of magnesium intensified adverse reactions to stress. Muscle cramps are an obvious physical sign of low magnesium, and a lack of either calcium or magnesium can make you more nervous, irritable and aggressive. For symptoms of feeling edgy, nervous and unable to relax, calcium and magnesium can be very useful.
Good food sources; avocado, almonds, figs, dark chocolate (70%), Nuts (aim to eat one dsp day of mixed unsalted nuts), Beans (lentils, black beans, chickpeas, peas and soya beans), Tofu, Seeds, Wholegrains (oats, barley, quinoa), Fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, halibut), Bananas, Leafy Greens
B complex vitamins are essential for helping to cope with stress in a balanced way. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) in particular is found in high concentrations in the adrenal glands (the part of the body that manages the stress response).
Good food sources; Eggs, Liver and Chicken Liver, Brewers Yeast, Split Peas, Black Beans, Spinach, Mushrooms, Salmon, Pine Nuts, Sunflower Seeds, Soya beans
Vitamin C is found in exceptionally high concentrations in adrenal tissues and supports balanced adrenal health. This nutrient is rapidly depleted during chemical, emotional, psychological or physiological stress and it is particularly important to supply high quantities during these times to cope with increased demand.
Good food sources; Strawberries, Kiwi, Bell Peppers, Brussel Sprouts, All citrus fruits, Kale, Papaya, Pineapple, Mango, Broccoli
Taurine is an amino acid, which plays an important role in many areas of the body including the brain and nervous system. It works in combination with vitamin B6 and magnesium.
Good food sources; Shellfish, Fish, beef, lamb, chicken, eggs, dairy, seaweed, krill and brewers yeast. Organ meats contain more taurine than regular cuts of meat eg. Chicken liver pate
L-theanine is a relaxing, health-promoting amino acid found in tea. Studies have shown that when theanine is absorbed by the body, it can help to bring about an alert, yet totally relaxed state of mind. When Japanese tea-drinkers refer to the ‘tea-mind’; it is this particular state of tranquillity brought about by theanine to which they are referring. L-theanine may help to support balance and improve the quality of sleep.
Good food sources; Green tea, Black Tea, Oolong tea
1) Seelig M.S. Consequences of Magnesium Deficiency on the Enhancement of Stress Reactions: Preventive and Therapeutic Implications (A Review) J Am Coll Nutr 1994; 13(5): 429-446
2) Rogers PJ, Smith JE et al., Time for tea: mood, blood pressure and cognitive performance effects of caffeine and theanine administered alone and together. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2008 Jan; 195 (4): 569-77 Epub 2007 Sep 23
If you answered yes to 5 or more of these questions, it’s likely you need to take action to reduce your stress load.