December can be an incredibly stressful month. The list of to-do’s can seem endless. Christmas shopping, gift-wrapping (and hiding), hosting friends and family, remembering to defrost the turkey...when does it end? It’s a time that can easily feel more burdensome than joyful. We approached experts in stress management, Food For the Brain, to share their top tips on how to balance stress and make the most of this holiday. Here’s what they had to say.
In 2016, stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. But how many of you are suffering in silence? And to what level do you let your health deteriorate before you feel it’s justifiable to take time off?
Stress is part and parcel of life and in balance can actually be healthy.
Stress is part and parcel of life and in balance can actually be healthy. It keeps us motivated, helps us get out of bed in the morning and can be a good warning sign that things aren’t working for us in our current everyday lives. It can encourage us to make positive changes. However, what happens when we simply can’t turn that switch off and stress turns into something chronic?
Our body has a very efficient way of dealing with stress. We release hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, which raise our blood pressure and heart rate and shift glucose from the liver into our bloodstream ready for our muscles to use. This is also known as the “flight or fight” response in our nervous system, the opposite to the “rest and digest”, which is associated with metabolising and assimilating the nutrients in the food we eat as well as regenerating and repairing cells. Despite this intelligent response system, our prehistoric bodies are not used to being in a constant state of stress, which depletes our body of vital nutrients that are necessary for optimal health. The constant elevation of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone, can lead to prolonged levels of inflammation as well as weakening of the immune system’s defences.
There are two key steps you can take right now to help manage and prevent symptoms of chronic stress:
Balance your blood sugar levels
The human brain weighs just 2% of an average body's weight, however it is the organ that sucks up the most energy in the human body. The brain's preferred source of energy is glucose, a simple sugar that most of our food gets broken down into, to create a sort of energy currency in our body. 20% of the glucose traveling round our body gets directed to the brain and its functions. Now you can imagine why our brain is so sensitive to fluctuations in our blood sugar levels. When cortisol is released due to stress, our blood sugar levels are increased as our body prepares itself for “fight or flight”, which is why it is even more important to stabilise our blood sugar levels when we’re chronically stressed to avoid fatigue, anxiety and low mood. Avoid refined foods like white bread, white pasta, white rice, pastries, cakes, biscuits, confectionery and fizzy drinks and replace with wholemeal bread and pasta, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and red kidney beans and other whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice and oats.
Watch your caffeine intake
Coffee in the morning is sacred for a lot of people. But when it feels like you can’t get up unless you have one and you begin to rely on it to get you through the day, you may have a problem. To put it simply, caffeine exhausts the “fight or flight” response by encouraging the release of cortisol, which as mentioned previously, leads to heightened blood sugar levels. Stick to one a day in the morning, or maybe go decaf for a while before you switch onto healthier choices such as green tea.
Increase your intake of Omega 3
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that is found mainly in oily fish, nuts and seeds and some green leafy veg. It's called an essential fatty acid because it is exactly that, essential. Our body does not produce this type of fatty acid, which is why it is important we consume it in our diets. Our brain is the fattiest of all the organs in the human body; nearly 60% of it is made up of fat. Research has shown that our intake of these types of essential fatty acids can determine the integrity and performance of our brain due to the significant role they play in the health and synthesis of neurotransmitters, our brain's messengers that determine how we feel. Not only that, Omega 3 also has some unique and powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Of course there are many other nutrition and lifestyle measures you can integrate into your everyday life to help manage chronic stress. At Food for the Brain, our mission is to generate as much awareness as we can around the importance of nutrition as a preventative and therapeutic measure for mental health. Our seminar series offers people the chance to inform themselves more about steps they can take to empower them to take control of their own health. Our next talk on Thursday January 31st on “Overcoming Stress with Nutrition” will be offering practical information that you can implement into your everyday lives, to increase your resilience to stress and optimise your health. To book or find our more information, please click here.