What is Stress?
Stress refers to an upset in the body’s balance due to physical, mental or emotional stimuli. When an individual becomes stressed, the body undergoes physiological changes. The secretion of adrenaline increases. Blood pressure rises, as does heartbeat. Muscles become more tense. In addition, digestion is disrupted, fats and sugars are released and cholesterol levels tend to rise. The immune system is adversely affected as the hormone that inhibits the white blood cells’ disease-fighting function is released. Stress may further the development of as much as 80% of all major illnesses including heart disease, cancer and skin problems. Psychological disorders such as anxiety (panic attacks) and depression may develop as a result of being under extreme and prolonged stress.
Stress may be a result of physical pressures or catastrophes, from dramatic swings in temperature to extreme pain, strenuous physical activity or surviving a car or plane crash (also called post-traumatic stress disorder). Stress may also develop from psychological pressures, from having to deal with a heavy workload or family-related problems such as divorce or the death of a loved one. Some individuals have a tendency to create stress, whether real or contrived. This often has to do with the person’s psychological make-up, his or her tendency to become anxious or "stressed out" more easily than the average individual. Nutritional deficiencies may add undue stress to the body.
Stress manifests itself in the form of fatigue, chronic headaches, irritability, swings in appetite and mood, low self-esteem, diminished sexual drive, insomnia and more.
Try to pinpoint the main cause of stress in your life and eliminate it. If the stress is food-related (e.g. caffeine, sugar and alcohol may lead to higher stress levels), cut the source of that stress out of your diet. Follow a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet. If you smoke, quitting this habit may relieve stress (at least of the physical kind). Regular exercise and a sufficient amount of sleep may help ease stress. Relaxation techniques, massages and meditation may also be helpful. If the stress seems unmanageable, seek professional help from a doctor and/or qualified therapist.
Sensible food choices can help buffer the effects of stress because the nutrients not only affect how well the body handles stress, but also help determine how fast the body recovers. It’s known, for example, that stress can increase the need for such nutrients as vitamin C, the B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc. For most folks, these increased requirements can be met by a healthy diet that supplies the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). But for individuals under severe stress, such as physical injury or surgery, supplements may be necessary. In these cases, it’s best to consult a health professional, such as a trained nutritionist or a doctor with nutrition savvy, for recommendations tailored to your specific needs.
During stressful periods, you don’t want food sitting in your stomach for long periods of time. Avoid large meals or foods laden with fats, such as hot dogs, cheeseburgers, French fries and chips. Instead, stick to smaller meals containing plenty of complex carbohydrates like fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. They help sustain energy, are typically high in important nutrients and don’t load you down.
Limit your intake of caffeine before periods of anticipated stress and after times that tensions have been high. Cut back on salt, particularly if you have high blood pressure. And although alcohol might be a tempting remedy for chronic stress, the potential for abuse is well known. If taken in lieu of a healthy diet, alcohol drains the body of needed nutrients and hastens one’s demise.
If you’re at the dining-room table and stress makes an unexpected appearance, stop eating. If possible, try to excuse yourself for a brief period. If you can’t get away, use the act of eating to help put the skids on your tension. First, concentrate on taking a few, very slow deep breaths before you continue your meal. Then, as you place foods in your mouth, focus on the different tastes and the physical act of chewing and swallowing.