Hippocrates had it right when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
This Ancient Greek physician knew back in 400 BC what we seem to ignore today, even with all of our scientific advancements.
Nutrition is the key to all of our health issues.
In fact, nutrition is so important, it not only determines our health, but it can affect how we look, our mental abilities, our moods, and essentially our overall wellbeing.
If nutrition is the foundation of our lives, it should come as no surprise then that what we eat, how we eat and even when we eat, can also affect our stress levels. In the same way, we can also help reduce stress with nutrition.
Food as Medicine
Like Hippocrates, an American scientist in the 50s, Ancel Keys, hypothesized that nutrition and lifestyle were key to our health and overall wellbeing. He believed there was a correlation between diet and disease rates between populations and among individuals within those populations.
As it turns out, he was right.
And his research was the basis for the “Mediterranean Diet,” which is well-documented as a key factor in heart health and other disease risks.
If you think of the human body, or any living organism for that matter, as an intricate machine, you will understand the importance of nutrition.
For instance, if you had a highly-tuned sports car, you would make sure you only used the best oil, gasoline etc.to fuel the car. Anything less would put this complex machine at risk of breaking down and even threatening the car’s lifespan.
So, if a manmade machine requires the best and most appropriate fuel to ensure it runs smoothly and for as long as possible, it makes complete sense that your body, the most multifaceted machine on the planet, would require at the bare minimum, the best fuel available.
You only have to look at your own life to know this is true. Ask yourself how you feel after binging on sugar compared to how your body and mind feels eating a nutritious meal.
The Food/Stress Link
We all experience stress in some form. It’s inevitable.
Life is unpredictable and depending on your attitude toward it, stress can be annoying or deadly.
Often, in the short-term at least, stress can actually shut down the appetite sensors in your brain. Your hypothalamus releases a chemical called corticotropin-releasing hormone that halts your hunger.
Add to that, the fact that your brain tells your adrenal glands to start pumping out adrenaline (epinephrine), which triggers a “fight or flight” response, which further puts eating on the back burner so to speak. (1)
The real problem starts, however, when the stress continues long-term, especially if you don’t do anything to counteract it. When this happens your adrenals release another hormone called cortisol, which you may recognize as the “belly fat” hormone.
Typically, when the stress subsides, so should your cortisol levels, but sometimes, the on/off switch can become “stuck” and your body will continue to pump out this steroid hormone.
While your body needs cortisol, excessive production of this hormone has a very dangerous side when it becomes elevated long-term. It alters your immune system’s ability to function properly, it also suppresses your digestive system, your reproductive system and even any growth processes. And because cortisol communicates with your brain, it also affects your mood, motivation and fear responses. (2)
Stress, Fat and Sugar—A dangerous Trio
Many studies show that stress not only affects your appetite but it can literally affect the types of food you eat.
A study conducted by the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana showed that 81 percent of the people studies, had a change in appetite when stressed and of those, 62 percent had an increased appetite.
The researcher also found that when not stressed 80 percent of these people would eat healthy, but when stressed only 33 percent chose healthy foods. And the typical unhealthy foods these people chose were sweet desserts, chocolate/candy bars, candy, ice cream, muffins/sweet breads, and fresh or canned fruit.
They also ate burgers, sandwiches using sandwich meats, pizza, casseroles, tacos, ethnic foods, and of course, the number one got-to, fast food. And the more stressed people were, the less variety they chose, sticking to the same unhealthy foods. (3)
To make matters worse, when you eat fatty or sugary foods, these foods have been shown to affect the part of your brain that produces and processes stress and any related emotions. In a way, these foods counter the emotional effects of stress, making them actual “comfort foods,” which explains why people gravitate toward them when stressed. (4)
While overeating the wrong foods is obviously not the only result of stress, it is a key factor. The types of foods you choose can also work in your favor. Certain foods are known to counter the effects of stress such as inflammation, mental or emotional issues and your energy levels for example. This makes nutrition key for living a stress-free life. With that in mind, here are three steadfast rules that will help you manage and fight stress.
Rule 1: Eat a Balanced (All Inclusive) Diet
Apart from living centuries apart, Hippocrates (also known as the Father of Medicine) and Ancel Keys both showed that eating properly is the key to your health and combatting stress.
Eating natural, healthy whole foods from all the key food groups can not only help prepare you to better handle stress, but it can also manage and repair the effects that stress can cause such as inflammation and fatigue.
Foods that are high in omega 3 for example, help with memory and inflammation. High antioxidant foods like fresh vegetables and fruits fight free radical oxidation, a side effect from stress.
High-quality proteins such as organic eggs, Gouda cheese, macadamia nuts or pecans will help keep your blood sugar levels steady for improved energy and mood.
When stressed look to healthy alternatives to the fat and sugar cravings like honey, yogurt and fruit smoothies, as well as nuts, bananas, dark chocolate etc. (5)
Rule 2: Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
What you eat and how much you eat are not as important as how nutritious the food is. When it comes to food, quality definitely outweighs quantity.
Studies report that “The effects of chronic stress may be exacerbated by a rich diet. Excess amounts of sugars and refined foods, for example, can diminish thiamine, niacin, B12, magnesium, and calcium. Low levels of these nutrients increase nervous-system reactivity, irritability, and nervousness. But even more serious is the realization that poor eating habits in general lead to low concentrations of nutrients in the blood, which can impair brain function.” (6)
Make sure to include minerals, vitamins, proteins, good fatty acids and quality carbohydrates, protein and fats for energy.
Rule 3: Avoid Processed and Unhealthy Foods at All Cost
The worst offenders are coffee, alcohol, sugary drinks, and fried foods. While these foods may be tempting when you are stressed, they will undoubtedly backfire and cause your body more stress in the long run.
Coffee: The caffeine in coffee can increase adrenaline levels. When you are stressed your body is already producing adrenaline, so adding more can over stimulate you and ultimately cause more stress. (7)
Alcohol: Alcohol is a very tempting solution when stressed. While it may seem like it can relax you, the effects are temporary. In the long term, alcoholic consumption can actually compound stress and prolong the recovery from a stressor according to studies. (8)
Sugary Drinks: Sweet drinks are typically full of artificial sweeteners that can be harmful to your body. Drinks that use high fructose corn syrup or sugar can also cause weight gain, which can result in further stress. Sugar spikes can also affect your mood, blood glucose levels and health. (9)
Fried Food: Fried foods are full of trans-fats that are linked to numerous health issues including cancer. When you are stressed you will crave these types of foods, like donuts, French fries etc., but know that they will only increase your physical and mental stress levels. They can lead to weight gain and chronic inflammation and disease, and ultimately more stress. (10) Just say no to fried food!
What you eat is not the only stress-related behavior that can add weight. Lack of sleep and exercise are also a big factor. And of course, if you drink alcohol, the extra calories can lead to extra pounds fast. But if you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, you will be much better prepared to take on any stressors that come your way.