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Surviving 9 to 5 – Why Nutrition is your most important health tool

It is important to understand the stress response and how it manifests in the body. This is because it is up to us to keep this perfectly natural, automated bodily process as controlled as possible. There are physical, behavioural, cognitive and emotional perspectives to consider during the (usually) daily fight or flight process and these are all different for everybody. Today we will look at one of the physical considerations involved in stress, our nutrition.

Learn more about different aspects of the stress response at the links below:

The Stress Response

Reducing the Stress Response

What does stress have to do with Nutrition?

As I practice Nutritional Medicine, I approach dietary needs based on current scientific research as well as the traditional perspective of viewing food as medicine. We can’t function without nutritional input, and bodily processes such as the stress response, utilize nutrients as it undergoes its chemically driven steps to deal with life. Daily bouts of stress are considered normal, but it is the prolonged, regular and high levels of stressful events that start to have a negative effect on our health.

From a nutritional perspective, high stress has been found to be associated with individuals with a poorer quality diet. Stress needs an outlet and turning to food and drink is a common one. The poor diet of a stressed individual usually refers to high saturated fat, low essential fatty acids and low fruit and vegetable intake. High levels of work-specific stress is often linked to high triglycerides, diabetes, poor sleep and high blood pressure. Health, safety and productivity in the workplace and at home is at risk when stress is dominant. Where mental strain is exhausted on ventures such as work, sometimes nutrition can understandably become a low priority.

The body can be extremely counterintuitive when it comes to dealing with stress. The need for nutrients increases, but according to research, the likelihood of making changes there is low. What needs to change are cognitive influences for food choices. Remember that what we WANT to eat, is usually not what we SHOULD eat therefore it requires a little more thought.

Stress often manifests in the body as inflammation, showing up in blood markers such as CRP and Homocysteine, which indicate an existing or the emergence of a diseased body. Diet is also an initiator of the inflammatory cycle, depending on our arachidonic acid consumption found animal products. It is then up to all the other foods we eat to counter this biochemical process and dictate what happens next. Together, both stress and diet are contributing factors in cardiovascular disease, strokes, migraines and poor mental health. Since diet is the most modifiable of the two, it is the most likely candidate for an overhaul.

How to eat to when experiencing a stressful lifestyle

Dietary changes are often perceived as difficult, with the addictive nature of saturated fat and sugar being implicated in this. In my experience, it also is due to habit, exposure, lack of time and craving. Fortunately tastes can change and destructive foods can be replaced with more beneficial alternatives over a realistic period of time.

While we talked about poor diet and stress leading to chronic illness, it is important to know that benefits for changing eating habits are immediate as well as long-term. Better digestion, restful sleep, higher energy, mood balance, resilience and pain reduction can be achieved through adding certain food and drink while gradually dismissing others. Positive dietary changes should be adopted as a life-long habit, rather than a short term fix.

#1 Relax, then Eat.

Digestion is compromised when stress is high as focus usually preserved for taking food onboard for utilization of nutrients has shifted away from the gut. Eating when in the midst of physical, emotional or mental strain is like diving into an empty pool – not the right time, nor conducive to good health. If you think a suitable time to eat may never come, it is a sign that stress relief techniques need to be learnt and practiced as regularly as possible. Since stressed individuals have low stomach acid, there may be benefit in having a small amount of apple cider vinegar before eating or include bitter foods such as rocket in your meals.

#2 Eat as anti-inflammatory as possible.

Since stress causes inflammation, aim to control it as much as possible with diet. Refer to Figure 1 for a brief guide.

Figure 1 – Anti-inflammatory Diet Overview

Figure 2 – Mediterranean Diet Overview

Similar to the Mediterranean diet (see figure 2), eating anti-inflammatory is mainly plant based, which includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. A lower emphasis is made on animal based products, sugar and alcohol. As you can see if the figure, the foods are sorted by benefit therefore foods at the bottom of the pyramid are considered not beneficial or should be avoided altogether (as advised by dietary standards, The World Health Organisation and Nutritionists).

Both these eating styles focus on the nutrients required for brain structure, function and maintenance which in turn assist to reduce the damage of stress. Benefits to mental health and general quality of life can be reported after 3 months of a high plant based diet along with a reduction of inflammatory biomarkers that are linked to stress and chronic illness.

Note that this may require months to implement changes, find new recipes and get used to the new foods. When used in research, Mediterranean eating is one of the easiest to adhere to because the variety of available foods is huge and it is also delicious.

#2.1 Plant Foods

The worn-out trope pushing vegetables on stressed-out individuals rears its ugly head again. Sorry about this, but it is so important. According to the ABS, in 2014–15, 7% of adults and 5% of children ate sufficient serves of vegetables. That is alarming. The suggested serving sizes are according to Eat for Health – a government website housing Australian-specific nutritional standards. These standards are put in place in order for Australians to maintain optimum health. My translation of this is that the recommended serves of vegetables for those who are stressed should exceed these recommendations. Increasing vegetable intake in stressed individuals can assist with profound change to any existing poor mental health, with improvements in mood, energy and general disposition reported after 2 weeks.

#2.2 Polyphenols

Polyphenols are the substances that provide vibrant colour in some fruits, herbs and spices, but are more renowned for their medicinal perks. Extensive research has been performed to demonstrate their anti-inflammatory capability in the prevention and treatment of painful conditions as well as mental health benefits. Most fruits and vegetables, green tea, cocoa, herbs, turmeric and ginger in the diet can lift your polyphenol intake and provide benefits beyond combating inflammation.

#3 GYO (Grow your Own)

If pandemics have taught us anything, it is that people who grow their own food were able to skip the intense and sometimes fruitless supermarket visits (no pun intended). Highly stressed workers are more likely to eat healthier when food is from their own garden. Gardening is also considered by busy workers as an effective de-stressing, self-care activity. Consider growing vegetables or herbs which is possible from most homes, even a small inner-city apartment.

Things you can do now

Do something today that your future self will thank you for.

Jo Knight – Naturopath @ Purple Tree Therapies

BHlthSc(ComplMed), Adv Dip Nat., Adv Dip Nut., Adv Dip. WestHerbMed

For dietary and lifestyle guidance tailored to your individual needs get in touch today - enquiries@purpletreetherapies.com.au

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