More and more people are experiencing chronic stress. In light of National Stress Awareness Month this April I'm sharing my top tips for controlling stress. You should note that whilst nutrition can play a role in stress management and cortisol levels it's not the bee-all-and-end-all. If you're suffering with chronic stress I recommend you seek further help.
So how can the food you eat and the lifestyle you lead be affecting your current stress levels?
Let's start with the habits which might be affecting you negatively.
1. Excess coffee
Coffee consumption has become part of our every day routine, whether we're drinking it to wake us up in the morning, to get us through the last few hours of the day or even just as a social, it can be having significant impacts on our cortisol levels. Research surrounding coffee is hugely mixed and whilst it may have its health benefits one thing is for sure, it's hindering those who suffer from chronic stress.
The caffeine in coffee stimulates excess cortisol production (the stress hormone). A constant over-production of cortisol may lead to an increased risk in insulin resistance, abdominal weight gain, anxiety, poor sleep and gastrointestinal issues to name a few.
In individuals who are slow caffeine metabolisers these risks may be heightened. I recommend consuming no more than 2 cups of coffee a day and the last one should be around 2pm to ensure adequate sleep quality and quantity.
2. Excess HIIT
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) has taken the nation by storm over the past few years as it has been shown to be effective in weight loss. However, this highly intensive training exerts a significant cortisol release which may take 24-48 hours to recover. For individuals who are already swimming in cortisol, this kind of contribution may only increase the risks stated above. I recommend doing no more than three HIIT sessions a week and for particularly stressed individuals try swapping this way of training to strength training, pilates, yoga and LISS (low intensity steady state training).
3. Poor Sleep
This one goes full circle. We've all experienced those nights where we've been left lying wide awake worrying about why we can't sleep and then during the day we're stressing about life issues which are contributing to a rise in cortisol causing us to find sleeping at night difficult and so the cycle continues.
4. Skipping Meals
There's a common belief that skipping meals means you take on less calories and therefore you'll lose weight. However, in reality this isn't the case. Skipping meals can stimulate a significant drop in blood sugar levels causing you to crave higher sugar foods, increase cortisol and increase your risk of over eating. Opt for meals rich in complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats to help stabilise blood sugar levels.
These are just a few of the many factors which may be contributing to your stress and cortisol levels in the body.
During a stressful episode 40% of people reach for food as a form of comfort. Typically these foods are most likely highly palatable (e.g foods with a high fat and sugar content). It's uncommon to reach for a broccoli or a bag of spinach during tressful times - it's more likely to be the chocolate, crisps and sweets which people choose for comfort. The reason for this is that highly palatable foods suppress the release of a hormone called ACTH. The role of ACTH is to promote cortisol release. Consequently when ACTH is suppressed there is a reduction in cortisol which ultimately leaves you feeling less stressed for that acute period of time. Over a prolonged period of stress our health falls rapidly down our priority list and the desire for highly palatable food climbs it quickly.
So what can you do to help control your stress and cortisol levels?
1. Opt for green tea - green tea contains a compound called L-theanine which stimulates the production of a neurotransmitter known as GABA. GABA exerts a calming effect on the brain. Try swapping your builder's cuppa for a mug of the green stuff. Although, remember it does still contain caffeine and so you shouldn't over do it.
2. Reduce your sugar intake - high sugar foods can play havoc on your blood sugar levels and hormones including insulin and cortisol. Opt for low sugar snacks which are high in protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Snack ideas include - hummus and crudites, a handful of nuts, an apple and nut butter or a boiled egg.
3. Increase your fibre intake - during stressful times our gut health is often at risk of suffering. When the body goes into the 'fight or flight' response to stress it shuts down other processes which aren't required to tackle the task including digestion. Eating foods high in fibre will help to support your gut bacteria and your bowel function. Nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and wholegrains are all great sources of fibre.
4. Increase your fruit and vegetable consumption - fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants which can help to stabilise some of the free radicals produced as a result of stress and oxidative stress. Opt for a wide range of F+V from different families and colours in order to ensure a variety of micronutrients and antioxidants.
5. Ensure adequate magnesium intakes
Magnesium plays numerous roles in the body - one of which involves with muscle and nerve relaxtion which can help you to feel less stressed during periods of chronic stress. Foods such as nuts, poultry, green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate are great sources of magnesium. You could also try bathing in Epsom salts once or twice a week as the magnesium is absorbed through the skin.
6. Up your vitamin C
During times of stress vitamin C is required for two main reasons. The first is to support the adrenal glands which release a significant amount of cortisol during periods of stress. The second reason is that stress can reduce immune function. Vitamin C plays a key role in supporting immunity. Foods high in vitamin C include: kiwi, pepper, oranges, tomatoes, papayas and guava to name a few.
There you have my top tips on how to use nutrition to help manage your stress and cortisol levels. Should you require more specific advice feel free to get in touch via the contact page.