Yikes, STRESS!

 Baby boomers and older adults—let’s talk stress!  You know, it’s that nagging feeling in your tight shoulders, your headaches, or your grumpy tummy.  Maybe it crops up when you talk with a co-worker or certain family member.  Or when you look at your bank account.  Or while you’re trying desperately to fall asleep (that’s me). And it can definitely hijack your health!

Whenever you feel it, and however it manifests, stress is actually a natural part of life.  It’s our body’s amazing cascade of events that prepares us to face life’s many challenges.  The stress response is what fuels those incredible stories you hear when somebody lifts a car off an accident victim.  Definitely good stuff!

But ongoing stress is debilitating.

So let’s take a look at stress, what it is, what causes it, and what you can do to mitigate its effect (through the prism of a nutrition and fitness professional).

What is stress?

Stress is a disruption in your body’s equilibrium in response to a real or perceived threat.  It occurs when you feel you have inadequate resources to meet that challenge.  Thus stress is a reaction that prepares your body to respond to danger.

The brain “sounds the alarm” by releasing stress hormones within seconds of sensing a threat: epinephrine (AKA adrenaline), norepinephrine, and good ol’ cortisol.  These cause the classic flight or fight response (I like to add one more “f” word: freeze, as some people become metaphorically paralyzed and unable to do anything when stress hits).

Our body reacts with increased heart rate, respiration, perspiration, blood clotting, acuity of senses, and energy production.  The latter, which entails releasing and harnessing stored fats and glucose, contributes to unbelievably strong feats during challenging situations.  Also happening in the GI system is slowed digestion.

Another reaction, although counterintuitive, is a suppression of immune function.  Diverting energy from digestion and immunity frees up our resources for the more immediate danger and potential damage.

How stress feels

Your reaction to stress is individual.  But the usual symptoms include:

  • headache
  • muscle tension (those shoulders again)
  • changes in diet and weight
  • anxiety and depression
  • sleep disturbances
  • irritability and short temper
  • fatigue
  • upset stomach
  • frequent colds

So as you can see, stress affects you both physically and mentally.  It spills out into your relationships with others.  And it can become a never-ending cycle; for example, you can’t sleep because you’re stressed, then you get more stressed because you can’t sleep!

Food to support your response to stress

Unfortunately, research linking certain foods, nutrients, and supplements to stress management is limited at this time.  But recent studies are looking at how foods keep our brain and gut strong, as both are assaulted by and intimately connected to our stress response.

Here are foods to consume with those goals in mind:

  • Eat a little bit of a large variety of foods.  This practice encourages growth of diverse gut bacteria; healthy for us as their host.
  • Concentrate on whole fruits, vegetables, berries, roots, tubers, leafy greens and cruciferous veggies, legumes, nuts, and seeds.  These foods supply nutrients for a healthy brain and GI tract.
  • Limit sugar.  It provides extra calories, which fuels obesity in many, a condition that causes problems for your brain and gut.
  • Drink lots of water.  A lot of people don’t hydrate enough when they’re stressed.  And of course, your brain succumbs easily to the effects of dehydration.  So aim for adequate water consumption throughout the day: take your body weight and divide it by 2.  That’s the number of ounces of water to aim for daily.

Movement to support your response to stress

Numerous studies show the beneficial effects exercise has on stress, although the exact mechanism isn’t known.

But it is clear that physical activity reduces levels of those stress hormones while increasing production of “feel good” chemicals (endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, 90% of which is actually produced in the gut), increases oxygen to cells, takes your mind off your problems, and increases self-confidence.

Here are exercise guidelines to follow with stress management in mind:

  • Exercise 150 minutes per week.  Aim for 30 minutes, five days per week; chunk this down to three 10-minute bouts of movement per day.
  • Engage in yoga or tai chi, 60 – 90 minutes, twice weekly.  These mind-body exercises help calm you down any time.
  • Bonus tip:  If you’re feeling stressed, go outside and move!  You’ll get the benefits of exercise, along with the proven mood-lifting effects of being in nature.

For more ways to use food and movement to stay healthy, reach out to me.

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