Feel stressed? The truth is, we all do – whether it’s a deadline, that morning commute, bills, daily chores or family commitments. According to Mental Health UK, 74% adults have felt so stressed over the last year that they have felt overwhelmed and unable to cope (1).
When we experience stress, whether it is physical, psychological or environmental, we release stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), directly increasing our heart rate and blood sugar levels, triggering us into a state of “fight and flight”. However, our body does not distinguish the nature of the stressor, responding to a fast approaching deadline in the same way as running out of a burning building. In a fast-paced world with hectic schedules, persistently high levels of stress hormones can wreak havoc and interfere with our normal bodily functions. In order to deal with the demands placed on us, we must equip our bodies with the correct resources, such as exercise, energy, good nutrition and sleep to promote optimal health and well-being.
Did you know that stress goes beyond our mental health and can massively impact our metabolism, immunity and digestive health?
Here we discuss the ways in which stress can wreak havoc in our body, providing you with useful tips to help you reduce stress in your life.
Breathe, Relax and Unwind
Meditation: easy to access apps such as Headspace and Calm are a great way to switch off and meditate for a few minutes each day and can be done at a time and place that suits you. This will really help you to firstly take some time out just for you, but also to return your focus to breathing properly. Research has shown that meditation can elicit a relaxation response and reduce the levels of stress hormones in the blood (2,3).
Gentle exercise: Recent evidence shows yoga can play an effective role in reducing stress and anxiety (4) and Tai Chi and brisk walking reduced cortisol levels significantly (5). Why not try some of these gentle exercises instead of your gym session once per week.
Get your sleep
Cortisol rises in the morning and naturally falls during the day, however persistently high levels of stress (and therefore cortisol) can disrupt our natural sleep cycle. Sleep is the nutrition your brain needs, giving it the chance to recover, repair muscles and tissues, stimulate growth and build up energy for the next day. In the same way, inadequate sleep actually puts our body under significant stress (6), impacting a number of bodily processes such as weight, energy levels, immune function and memory/concentration. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is recommended that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night, with less than 6 hours being detrimental to your health (7).
Try to tuck into bed a little earlier than usual and avoid over stimulating or stress inducing activities an hour before bedtime (that includes watching the news!)
Balancing blood sugar levels
Blood sugar levels rise when we are stressed and energy is diverted to our extremities, giving us the ability to run out of a burning building or fight for our lives (think ‘fight and flight’). However, we often don’t utilise this release of glucose as we sit at our desks, head in our hands, worrying about that deadline. This excess glucose is stored as fat, often around the abdominal area. Furthermore, a diet high in refined carbohydrates (white pasta, white bread, biscuits, pastries, sweets) also adds fuel to the ‘blood sugar fire ‘ and may increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes (8,9). In the same way, uncontrolled blood sugar levels through poor dietary choices can further perpetuate the physical stress on our body.
Challenge yourself to swap out your refined carbohydrates for complex carbohydrates (whole-grains, brown rice, root vegetables, quinoa), combining this with a source of protein (meat, beans, lentils, fish, eggs) and healthy fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds) to promote a slower breakdown of carbohydrates and balance blood sugar levels.
The Great Outdoors
Research indicates that spending time outdoors (in a forest environment compared to a city) can significantly reduce our cortisol production (10). Similarly, it’s been shown that even 20 minutes of contact with nature can reduce stress hormone levels (11). I would highly recommend getting out on your lunch break and taking a walk in a nearby park or somewhere green, as an easy, low cost way of managing stress!
The Mighty Mineral
Magnesium is an essential mineral required by almost all cellular functions in the body and helps us deal with stress..it’s pretty important! However during stress, magnesium is used up and eliminated at an increased rate, which in turn increases the stress burden on the body (12)…it’s a vicious cycle really!
Eating magnesium rich foods, particularly in times of increased stress can prove to be beneficial in avoiding deficiency. These include pumpkin seeds, legumes, green leafy vegetables, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, pine nuts and almonds – (30g of pumpkin seeds for example, provide about 79mg of magnesium). Women require 270mg daily and men 300mg.
By Zara Syed
In-house Nutritionist at APPI
MSc, BSc (Hons), DipION, CNHC
*****This blog is not intended or implied to be a substitute for seeking professional medical advice, treatment or diagnosis. Information provided here is general, and not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any disease or conditions. Please contact your GP or private health consultant, if you have any personal health concerns, or consult a registered nutritional therapist for personalised dietary and lifestyle advice and guidance.
1. Mental Health Foundation. (2019). Stressed nation: 74% of UK ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope’ at some point in the past year. [online] Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/stressed-nation-74-uk-overwhelmed-or-unable-cope-some-point-past-year [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
2. Pascoe, M., Thompson, D., Jenkins, Z. and Ski, C. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95, pp.156-178.
3. Mohan, A., Sharma, R. and Bijlani, R. (2011). Effect of Meditation on Stress-Induced Changes in Cognitive Functions. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(3), pp.207-212.
4. Masoumeh ShohanI, Gholamreza Badfar, Marzieh Parizad Nasirkandy, Sattar Kaikhavani, Shoboo Rahmati, Yaghoob Modmeli, Ali Soleymani, and Milad Azami (2018). The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women. Int J Prev Med, 9, p.21.
5. Jin, P. (1992). Efficacy of Tai Chi, brisk walking, meditation, and reading in reducing mental and emotional stress. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 36(4), pp.361-370.
6. Wright, K., Drake, A., Frey, D., Fleshner, M., Desouza, C., Gronfier, C. and Czeisler, C. (2015). Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol, inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 47, pp.24-34.
7. Sleepfoundation.org. (2019). National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times | National Sleep Foundation. [online] Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].
8. Liu, S. (2002). Intake of Refined Carbohydrates and Whole Grain Foods in Relation to Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and Coronary Heart Disease. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 21(4), pp.298-306.
9. Aune, D., Norat, T., Romundstad, P. and Vatten, L. (2013). Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of cohort studies. European Journal of Epidemiology, 28(11), pp.845-858.
10. Park, B., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y. (2009). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15(1), pp.18-26.
11. Hunter, M., Gillespie, B. and Chen, S. (2019). Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
12. Tarasov, E., Blinov, D., Zimovina, U. and Sandakova, E. (2015). Magnesium deficiency and stress: Issues of their relationship, diagnostic tests, and approaches to therapy. Terapevticheskii arkhiv, 87(9), p.114.