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Stress & Anxiety - How can food help? (part 1)





Are you struggling with chronic stress? Do you feel anxious all the time or constantly tired? Do you emotionally eat as a coping mechanism? Keep reading for part one (of 4) of the stress & anxiety blog series.


In part 2 of the blog series (will be released on wednesday) I team up with Integrative Therapist Alexandra Taylor for some top tips for the management of stress and anxiety that you can introduce into your day to day life.


 

The HPA-axis

Through evolution our bodies have developed to deal with acutely stressful situations such as running away from a lion, through the quick reactions of the nervous system and stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. In such an event blood pressure and heart rate are increased and blood supply is sent to the areas most needed to fight or run away from danger, hence the term ‘fight or flight’, such as the heart and brain, and large muscles in the limbs. This process is controlled by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis).


When in 'fight or flight' mode, other functions are deprioritised such as reproduction, immune function, and digestion. In acutely stressful situations, as soon as the threat has passed, the body returns to normal. However, in modern life when we experience stress daily (chronic stress), the same effects occur but over a prolonged period.


This overstimulation of the nervous system can lead to dysregulated hormones and metabolic pathways such as blood sugar regulation, fat deposition, altered hunger and satiety signalling, further mood issues, and changes in eating behaviours such as volume and types of food eaten.


Often when stressed or anxious many choose highly palatable high fat and high sugar foods, such as simple carbohydrates and sweets, due to their effect of downregulating the nervous system & hormonal stress response (the HPA axis). This may seem like a useful self-medicating behaviour at the time, but longer term this contributes to weight gain, metabolic issues and increased mood disturbance. In turn, this style of eating tends to be lower in nutritionally dense foods such as fruits and vegetables and therefore lower in vitamins and minerals among other health-promoting compounds. High sugar foods contribute to sugar spikes which are followed by dips, leaving you feeling fatigued and in need of (another) quick ‘pick me up’. With a sugar dip, our cortisol rises, and the cycle continues.


In order to balance our stress levels and reduce HPA-axis dysregulation, it is important that we reduce the amount of nervous system stimulation, and increase time spent relaxing and restoring so that all body systems are given optimal energy to function and repair. Part 2 of this blog series will offer some relaxation techniques to help with this.


Exercise

30-40 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise (exertion to the point where you can just about hold a conversation, such as brisk walking, swimming, dancing, vinyasa flow yoga), 2-3 times per week, can help to reduce stress, build stress resilience, and increase general feelings of well-being.


How does food affect mood?

Food in itself can have an almost instant positive or negative effect on mood as well as more longer lasting effects that can impact health risks.


Removing stimulants from the diet such as alcohol & caffeine can help to reduce the hyperstimulation of the nervous system. This change alone can have a big positive impact on those experiencing stress or anxiety.


Caffeine and alcohol block REM sleep which is essential for mental health & mood – another reason to cut down on intake as much as possible. Low quality or quantity of sleep may dysregulate the HPA-axis leading to overeating, poor food choices, and increased feelings of stress & anxiety long term.


Include sufficient protein with each meal. This simple change will have wide reaching benefits such as keeping you feeling fuller for longer so you are less inclined to snack on junk foods, supplying sufficient protein to produce calming neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) such as serotonin, and also aiding in stabilising blood sugar levels.


You could consider supplementing with Ashwaghanda (capsule or powder form mixed into food and drink), which is an adaptogenic herb and improves the body’s resilience to stress.


Emotional Eating

When stressed or anxious, some people may use food as a coping mechanism. This may in the short term make us feel better, but longer term this style of eating and relationship with food can pose bigger threats to our health.


All sorts of emotional factors can lead to emotional eating, e.g. when we are happy or sad, to celebrate or to grieve, when we are anxious, stressed, or elated. If you have gotten into the habit of using food to enhance or suppress your emotions, you could try some of these tips to reduce the habit to support your health long term.


When we get into patterns of emotional eating or ‘comfort eating’ in combination with dysregulated appetite hormones (during stressful periods), over time neural pathways which promote food reward sensitivity (i.e. food addiction) can develop to the point where it feels like an automatic behaviour, with a decrease of behavioural control and an increase in impulsive eating. If you’re feeling like you’re always hungry and can’t stop eating, try mindful eating (more on this in part 2), keeping a food diary, and opting for foods which are nutrient dense and which keep you feeling fuller for longer such as high fibre meals including a good portion of protein.


Consider pre-planning or batch cooking your meals, and eating at roughly the same time each day. This will help to regulate your circadian rhythms, retrain your appetite/satiety hormones and reduce the food-reward ‘addictive’ nature of emotional eating habits. Ensure you have only healthy foods in the house and practice reappraising stressful situations & self-worth affirmations when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Prioritising good sleep is also important as a lack of sleep in emotional eaters has shown to further dysregulate appetite hormones and increase emotional eating behaviours.


Gut Health

The gut-brain connection is a system of communication between the brain and the digestive system via nerves and chemical messengers, in both directions. So when we feel negative emotions, we may feel physical sensations such as bloating in the gut, and vice versa.


In the gut is where 90% of our serotonin is made (a happy hormone), which influences mood and gut health. A healthy gut means low inflammation in the gut wall (and thus no inflammatory messenger chemicals sent to the brain), and healthy serotonin production in the gut.


Our gut is lined with trillions of bacteria (the microbiome), some strains are beneficial and others not so much. When the balance is right we have a happy gut which positively interacts with our immune system and influences mood.


For good gut health, gradually increase plant foods e.g. fruit, vegetables, leaves, beans, and fermented foods to improve microbiome constitution and promote beneficial strains of bacteria residing in the gut.


Reduce animal proteins & fats, and alcohol which are pro-inflammatory in the gut and a potential contributor to mental ill health.


Include healthy fats in the diet such as nuts & seeds but avoid excessive fat consumption, especially saturated fat, as high fat diets increase inflammation in the gut and contribute to the permeability of the gut wall, which can negatively affect mood via chemical messaging.


Happy hormones

In order to make calming brain chemicals such as serotonin and GABA, we first need the building blocks which come from protein, so sufficient protein in each meal will help this. In particular, a certain type of protein called tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and can be found in high amounts in foods such as nuts, seeds, soy beans, lentils, oats, bulgur wheat & buckwheat. Include a healthy source of carbohydrate such as wholegrains to increase tryptophan uptake in the brain.


Try to get some sunshine on your skin daily to increase serotonin production, and increase foods rich in magnesium such as dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, which increase GABA production (another calming brain chemical).


Other

For some people, feelings of anxiety can be caused primarily by factors such as deficiencies in iron, B12, or vitamin D, or due to thyroid gland insufficiency. If this is a possibility, testing would be useful to rule out these factors.

 

Try out some of these tips above and let me know how you get on in the comments section below. For a more tailored insight into your personal health and underlying drivers, book in to see me in my Lymington clinic or online.


Good luck! Annie x

 

To learn more about nutrition and how it effects your health, sign up to my blog and mailing list to stay up to date.

 

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/


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