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Why You Don’t Need to ‘Beat’ Stress

How to support your body with the nutrients it needs during stressful times.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Being stressed is simply a part of being a human. It’s a natural defence mechanism that our bodies are equipped with to save us from death.

Imagine this scene in pre-historic times: we come face to face with a predator like a lion, tiger or cheetah. We haven’t eaten for a while. We know we are in danger and we would like to survive. All of these things have been viewed by our eyes, interpreted by our brains and felt with by our senses. Our body is now flushed with hormones (cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline), which prepare us to stay strong and fight or flee at lightening speed, if necessary.

At this point, blood goes to the necessary survival places like our limbs, eyes and brain and away from ongoing activities like in our digestive and immune systems. Our heart rate quickens. Our muscles prepare in the ready position. We start to breathe faster and we start to sweat. Our body also breaks down energy stores in our body to be primed for heightened activity. We are in an acute stressed situation.

The scene previously illustrated has not confronted humans for many, many years now. However, stress is a major issue and cause of disease today. Modern day things affect us in similar pre-historic ways, like the noises of living in a city, successfully maintaining relationships, gaining a job promotion, entering retirement, moving house, having a baby, going on trips, having limited time and / or finances, pre-empting death, witnessing crime and the feeling of uncertainty. But the right foods can aid us.

The Mental Health Foundation states that 75% of people in the UK have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in their lives in the past year. Even things that on the face of it may seem fun can be stressful, for example first dates or intense exercise. To our primitive bodies, the consequences are the same: a threat to survival. Anything that can be perceived by the nervous system as over-stimulating will set off the cascade of events in the body that form the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism.

This ‘fight or flight’ mechanism can, if chronic stress or high levels of acute stress are experienced often enough, wreak havoc on the body’s systems. Hormones are depleted too readily, the brain’s fear centre (the amygdala) increases in size, becoming hyper-sensitive, the brain’s learning and memory centre (the hippocampus) can deteriorate and the immune system becomes suppressed. High levels of the hormone cortisol can cause chronic inflammation and adrenaline and noradrenaline will increase one’s resting blood pressure.

So what can we do to help our bodies with the burden? There is a lot of talk about ‘beating’ or ‘busting’ stress but I think we need to accept reality and simply support ourselves nutritionally during these times. Sometimes we have to live in a place we may not want to because our work is there or endure various challenges because that’s what life throws at us. And some say that’s what makes a full life.

Here’s how you can support yourself through food during those times…

1. Eat turkey or chicken to help build stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline.

2. Consume olive oil, nuts, seeds and fatty fish like salmon to form the foundation of cortisol production, a necessary hormone for bodily functions.

3. Have bell peppers, kiwis and oranges, all of which are a great source of vitamin C, helping lower excessively high cortisol levels.

4. Find low GI foods, like wholegrains, beans and lentils to control blood sugar levels and cravings, which are inadvertently higher with stress.

5. Try pumpkin seeds, sweet potato and carrots to facilitate disrupted repair work.

6. Eat beans and eggs to build protective immune cells, which can be used up unnecessarily during modern-day stress.

7. Gorge on green leaves, celery and beetroot, which can reduce inflammation — a result of high inflammatory immune cell production.

8. Source mushrooms to support the brain and nervous system function.

Having a vegetable-focused diet, full of essential vitamins and minerals is a great way to support your body in times of need. Be aware of foods, which may have been exposed to pesticides and chemicals like bell peppers or anything which has an edible skin (check here for a list: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php).

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