Stress & Diet - Can What We Eat Really Make A Difference?

by Emer Delaney

Our lives today are becoming increasingly more stressful: we’re working longer hours, eating at our desks, taking on more responsibility and struggling to take holidays. This leaves us with little time to think about what we eat, to cook from fresh or to eat as healthily as we could. But do these habits really matter and what happens when we become stressed? Does it affect our bodies?

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced from cholesterol in our adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. It is usually released in response to waking, exercise and acute stress. Cortisol plays a very important role in the body as it regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of carbohydrate, fat or protein needed to meet physical demands. When chronically elevated, it can affect weight, immune function and chronic disease risk.

When we’re faced with any particular stressor, there is a complex cascade of hormones, which cause the kidneys to release cortisol. This then prepares the body for a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction through the overproduction of glucose as an immediate energy source for large muscles. Cortisol also inhibits insulin in order for the muscles to use this extra glucose. Arteries narrow and heart rate increases until we address the stress, after which hormone levels return to normal. This is a rather simplified version of the process but one that’s easy to understand.

So how does this really affect our lives?
It all links back to our ever-increasingly stressful lives. Our fast-paced lifestyle means that our bodies have an almost constant cortisol supply which can wreak havoc with our health. Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain. We know that cortisol can mobilise triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells. (I.e. Visceral fat is the fat that is stored within the abdominal cavity around a number of important internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines.) Research has shown that higher amounts of visceral fat are associated with increased risks of a number of health problems including Type 2 Diabetes.

We also know that elevated cortisol levels affect blood sugar and insulin control. Consistently high blood glucose levels and insulin suppression results in cells that are starved of glucose. Our body regulates this by sending hunger signals to the brain, which can lead to overeating and the storage of unused glucose as fat. Research has also shown that elevated cortisol levels can suppress our immune system leaving us more susceptible to colds and other illnesses.

But where does the role of diet come in and what can we do to manage all of this stress in our lives?
Some strategies for stress management include better quality sleep, breathing work, acupuncture, cardio, resistance or relaxation exercises, and addressing any psychological or emotional issues. We already know that inflammation causes elevated cortisol levels so if we can naturally reduce inflammation in the body and minimise stress, cortisol levels should drop. This in turn should reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve wellness.

There is no perfect anti-inflammatory diet but, as experts, dietitians can recommend dietary changes based on the evidence and research we know. Why don’t you try to make the following diet and lifestyle changes to help improve your overall wellbeing whilst minimising inflammation?

  • Choose low glycaemic (i.e. low GI) foods such as oats, rye and pumpernickel breads
  • Reduce your trans fats found in process foods, cakes, biscuits and sweets
  • Minimise intake of saturated fats found in fatty and processed meats, butter, lard, ghee and pastry
  • Drink less caffeine and opt for more herbal teas
  • Keep alcohol to the recommended 14 units and have a few alcohol free days a week
  • Increase your consumption of wholegrain products; choosing granary bread, brown rice, pasta, nuts, seeds and pulses
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables and aim to have a minimum of five portions a day to maximise your intake of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, which we know reduce inflammation
  • Increase your omega-3 fatty acids by eating oily fish from sustainable sources (e.g. salmon, herring, fresh tuna and mackerel) at least once a week. If you don’t like oily fish, try to include plant-based sources instead (e.g. walnuts, pumpkin seeds, vegetable oils (e.g. rapeseed and linseed), soya and soya products (e.g. beans, milk and tofu and green leafy vegetables)).

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