We are all living in an element of heightened stress as modern humans. Throwing 2020 and all of its uncertainty into the game compounds the effects of stress for all of us. A big election year, a pandemic, social issues, public health issues, and social media create added pressure in all of our lives, that have a real effect on health. When you feel stress, your body produces stress hormones to help you combat a perceived threat. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up, your digestion and reproductive capacities are inhibited, and glucose is released into your bloodstream to fuel muscles to fight or flee. A normal physiological response, however, most threats today are psychological and emotional as opposed to physical threats that require stress hormones for survival.
The problem is that your brain cannot discern the difference between a physical threat and an emotional or psychological threat, and the physiological effects are the same. When your psychosocial stressors continue long term, the stress becomes chronic and you can experience hypertension, depression, anxiety, reduced immunity, fertility issues, and poor digestion, resulting in additional health problems.
We have antianxiety, antidepressant, antihypertensive, and antidiabetic medications that can help reduce the physical symptoms of chronic stress, an holistic lifestyle approach can often reverse them. One of the best places to begin is nutrition! Over time the effects of chronic stress on your gut slows digestion, caused by the effects of the vagus nerve, responsible for the information to and from the heart, lungs, and digestive system. Chronic stress can result in reduced acid secretions in the stomach and nutrient absorption in the small intestines. It can also create an impaired gut barrier leaving you vulnerable to a leaky gut. By addressing nutrition and gut health, you can reduce blood sugar imbalances, provide necessary amino acids and fatty acids to support mental health, in turn, balancing mood, and reduce inflammation related to cardiovascular and kidney disease.
It sounds simple and is, though the habits you may create as you cope with chronic stress can be hard to break. Beginning to address what you eat, when you eat, and how you eat brings mindfulness to your eating habits. Taking time to organize the week based on meals is a great place to start. Meal prepping with planned grocery shopping helps take the stress of “what’s for dinner” out of the equation in turn addressing your nutritional intake. Taking extra time to create healthy meals with left-overs for lunch or freezer meals is an empowering tool in supporting your health and wellness.
You might be wondering what foods you should eat that are healthy and can support your gut health and the rest of your body. Here are my tips:
- Green leafy vegetables provide fiber, water, and a high level of B vitamins that support your energy levels and help balance mood. They are anti-inflammatory and feed your gut microbiome, protecting the gut barrier.
- Cruciferous vegetables provide a variety of vitamins and minerals that support your body and sulfur compounds to help your body naturally detoxify from environmental toxins.
- Fruits, especially berries, provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds that reduce inflammation in the body. They help combat the inflammatory effects of stress on your body and reduce sugar cravings that are common with chronic stress.
- High-quality protein provides all amino acids in addition to important minerals necessary for combating the effects of stress. A high-quality protein is one that your body can easily digest and extract nutrients. Plant-based proteins provide necessary amino acids, however, they are not as easily digested and absorbed as those obtained from meat and fish. For vegetarians and vegans, it is important to supplement with essential amino acids, iron, and B12 to ensure proper nutrient status.
- Healthy fat provides important fatty acids that support cellular health, brain health, hormone production, and a feeling of satiety to reduce sugar cravings. Coming out of a “fat-free” culture, we now recognize the importance of healthy fats to protect the heart through the anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 fats. Salmon, nuts, seeds, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil are important additions to the diet.
While we cannot eliminate stress in our lives, we can control how it affects us through lifestyle modifications like nutritional intake. This adds a mindful practice that is often forgotten in a busy daily life. When we take the time to prepare food, we cultivate an enjoyable habit – eating well! Adding gratitude to your meals is another mindful practice that can help combat the effects of stress and help you enjoy life as a modern human a little more.
Enjoy your food. Enjoy your life. Enjoy your health and wellness!