How to manage your stress by Chloe Collins
“Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that their demands exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to mobilise.”
Stress is in a lot of ways about perception, about what we perceive as urgent. In order to change this perception, and therefore reduce stressful factors in their lives, one can work on changing the way that they think. We stress over the emails in our inbox, we stress while we sit at a red light running late for work, we stress over deadlines and workloads, we stress over not being good enough or fit enough, we stress over our children, we stress over the expectations in which society puts upon us. Each person’s stress is unique to their situation.
Stress is healthy, and it is a natural human response. It is one of the body’s amazing defence and safety mechanisms. When we are under stress our cortisol levels are raised. Cortisol is the stress response hormone which is important for several bodily functions. These days, we tend to hold onto stress and can have high cortisol levels most of the time. Stress is necessary at times, it is when it is prolonged that it is dangerous. Other bodily functions are made secondary to the stress response, this affects your digestive and reproductive system. Stress will present itself in different ways, which relate to a sluggish digestive system, impaired gut health, and reproductive issues. Stress can show on your skin, in headaches, poor sleep, and many other ways.
We all have an autonomic nervous system, this is made up of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as ‘fight or flight’ as it controls the body’s response to a threat and restricts blood flow to other body systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as ‘rest or digest’ as it control homeostasis in the body, relaxing the heart and sending blood to the stomach and intestines, aiding digestion.
We’ve spoken on cortisol, now let’s have a look at the feel-good Cortisol contenders, the happy hormones which knock prolonged cortisol out of the park. Dopamine, Serotonin & Oxytocin all contend with cortisol and at the exact time that these hormones are released, cortisol cannot be. Rather than focusing on reducing stress, why not focus on increasing feel good hormone production? This is a way to interrupt cortisol when you may be in constant flight or fight mode.
Dopamine is your rewarding hormone. It gives a feeling of wellbeing and pleasure. A way to increase dopamine and decrease cortisol is by setting realistic goals which you can reach and celebrate throughout the week, getting a hit of dopamine rather than unrealistic pressure which creates stress. Another easy way to boost dopamine is by listening to your favourite feel-good music!
Serotonin is a mood boosting hormone. An excellent way to increase serotonin is by exercising daily, a brisk walk outside will do the trick or even a 15-minute-high intensity workout. Making the time for exercise will boost your mood and combat stress. Carbohydrates also increase serotonin levels. Instead of reaching for the lolly jar, opt for nutrient dense complex carbohydrates like wholegrain bread. However, it doesn’t hurt to reach for the lolly jar every now and then!
Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the ‘love drug’. Oxytocin gives us a fuzzy feeling of love and belonging. Increase your oxytocin levels by kissing your partner, cuddling your children or your pet, or laughing with a friend.
How can we eat for stress? We as humans are very instinctual and usually crave things for a reason. It’s good to know that your carbohydrate cravings are spot on! The key is eating the complex carbohydrates not simple ones, an important distinction. I spoke earlier on complex carbohydrates in order to increase serotonin production, another benefit is their blood pressure stabilising effects. Complex carbohydrates take longer time to digest and, therefore, will keep you calm for a longer period of time. I urge you not to avoid carbohydrates because of guilt, but to embrace them in a conscious manner, without overindulging too often.
Getting adequate protein is also important, whether it’s obtained from animal or plant-based sources. Either way, it is important to eat complete proteins in order to be consuming all of the essential amino acids. Animal-based sources of protein are complete. It is possible to have a healthy protein intake from plant-based sources; however, they have to be combined to create a complete protein, with the exception of quinoa which makes up a complete protein. Lean meats, chicken, fish and eggs are great sources of protein as well as legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.
B complex vitamins are essential in order to help maintain a healthy nervous system. B vitamins are water soluble, which means that they are not stored in your fat and must be replenished through the diet on a daily basis for optimum health.
Vitamin C, amongst its other benefits for the body, can help to reduce stress and quickly eliminate cortisol. The adrenal glands require vitamin C to stay healthy and to manufacture the adrenal hormones that cope with stress. The more cortisol made, the more vitamin C used, so vitamin C is so essential to the entire HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) Axis. When cortisol is high your immune system is also suppressed vitamin C helps to support your immune function during times of stress.
Magnesium is well known and touted as a way to manage stress and increase energy levels. There has been loads of research done, proving the importance of magnesium for stress response and a healthy central nervous system. Magnesium is an essential mineral, utilized in the human body as a cofactor of over 300 biochemical reactions required to maintain homeostasis. The body does not produce magnesium, you need to obtain it from the food that you eat.
Magnesium acts as a muscle relaxant, useful in treating the physical aspects of stress and headaches as well. Magnesium also modulates activity of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPAA) which is a central substrate of the stress response system. Supplemental magnesium has been shown to have a stabilizing effect on mood. When you are under stress, your body creates stress hormones that cause a cascade of physical effects, all of which consume magnesium. Taken before bed Magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.
Omega 3 fatty acids are also vital for healthy neurological function and are an important therapeutic approach to stress. They act as a carrier for lipid derived messengers, these are nutrients which require fat for absorption. They play many roles in the regulation of a healthy central nervous system.
Through lifestyle changes and mindset shifts along with the correct nutritional support by consuming a wide range of whole foods, you can begin to manage your 21st Century stress in order to have a better quality of life!
About the Author:
Chloe Collins, The Whole Nutritionist is passionate in women’s reproductive health. From naturally managing conditions of the reproductive system, to nutritionally guiding women through their fertility journey in order to have a healthy pregnancy and a happy baby. Chloe offers face-to-face consultations in her clinic in Cairns, Far North Queensland as well as online consultations nationwide.