How does stress affect the body?
Top nutritionist Amanda Ursell explains how stress impacts us physically and what we can do to reduce it
What happens to us physiologically when we’re stressed?
AWhen we find ourselves in stressful situations, our bodies release a cascade of hormones, starting with adrenaline. As adrenaline surges around our body, it increases our heart rate and directs blood to our brains and muscles. This helps us to make split-second decisions about whether to fight or run from the cause of the stress. Quickly after, cortisol is released and has the effect of raising blood-sugar levels to help sustain our reactions.
So, stress is harmful to us?
AAlthough stress has many negative associations, it is not always a bad thing. If a child is running after a ball towards a busy road, being able to leap into action could save their life. Equally, a quick burst of stress before an important event may help us to focus and get us through a nerve-wracking experience. When this stress response is repeated in an ongoing way, however, it can turn into a longer-term state of stress, known as anxiety.
How does anxiety manifest itself in the body?
AIt is not surprising, given the year we have lived through, that many of us have been and are still dealing with raised levels of stress and anxiety. This can lead to feelings of fear, anger, sadness or frustration. It can leave us feeling indecisive, disrupt our sleep and make us irritable or tearful. We may experience anything, from headaches and nausea to indigestion, irritable bowel, stomach ulcers and raised blood pressure. For some of us, it may have led to drinking more alcohol or relying on drugs to help cope. Any of these reactions can then have the knock-on effect of impacting on relationships at home, work and with our friends.
What can we do to combat stress?
AThere are many things we can do to help ourselves when stressed and anxious, and identifying that we feel this way is a vital starting point. If things feel overwhelming and critical, then NHS urgent mental health helplines can be called 24 hours a day, as can listening services like the Samaritans. Making an appointment to see your doctor is also an important step. They may advise one of a number of talking therapies, further specialist medical help and possibly medication. Thinking about our lifestyles can also help: taking steps to build supportive relationships, having time out, doing some regular exercise, addressing sleep issues, practising mindfulness and so on. All are potential options for helping us through, as is thinking about what we eat and drink.
How can anxiety affect what we eat?
AA rush of adrenaline that is released when we are initially stressed tends to be associated with a decrease in appetite. This allows our bodies to get on with the task of dealing with imminent danger or fear. The release of cortisol that follows, on the other hand, tends to leave us with an increase in appetite. If we live in a constant state of anxiety with permanently raised cortisol, this may trigger cravings for comfort foods, leading to weight gain and potentially, Type 2 diabetes, raised blood fats and blood pressure, as well as suppression of the immune system. In turn, this can impact negatively on our mood and self-confidence, and worsen our overall mental wellbeing.
Can our diet help with anxiety?
AAlthough stress and anxiety may drive us towards quick fixes of comfort food, if we can resist and instead opt for a traditional Mediterranean, Japanese or Finnish style diet, research reveals that it is possible to reduce symptoms of anxiety, low mood and even symptoms of depression. These diets all share the common theme of being naturally rich in fruits and vegetables. They also rely more on wholegrains, rather than refined carbohydrates, and feature lean proteins, such as pulses, beans, tofu, fish and eggs, with only moderate amounts of meat. They are, in short, long on nutrient-packed foods and short on nutrient-poor, processed foods rich in calories, saturated fats, sugar and salt. Scientists are not exactly sure why this combination of foods has a positive effect on our mental health, but say it is likely to be down to various factors, including the huge range of mood-friendly vitamins, minerals and super nutrients like antioxidant flavonoids these dietary elements provide. It is possible that these nutrients and super nutrients help to dampen down inflammation and stress pathways in our bodies, while fibre in traditional diets feeds the beneficial bacteria in our gut, which in turn produce mood-boosting hormones like dopamine and serotonin.
Does taking vitamin and mineral supplements help?
AWhile the bedrock of a diet for good mental health is based on the above mentioned traditional styles of eating, a little extra help with certain nutrients may be beneficial. Iron is found in lean red meat, oily fish, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, dark green vegetables and pulses, and a lack of it can leave us tired, down and stressed. Magnesium in Western diets mostly comes from nuts, pulses, wholegrains and fruits, and symptoms of poor magnesium intake can include mild anxiety and nervousness along with tiredness and irritability. Low vitamin D in our blood can also leave us exhausted, down and anxious – we are all recommended to take 10mg of vitamin D daily in winter.
Are there natural remedies that can alleviate stress?
AAshwagandha is a herb widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to combat and reduce stress, helping to improve sleep and lower circulating levels of the hormone cortisol in the blood, and ginseng panax has long been used by traditional Chinese doctors to help ease stress and anxiety. The herb tulsi, also known as holy basil, is revered in both Siddha and Ayurvedic medical systems for its wide range of benefits, including protecting our hearts and having antimicrobial properties, as well as helping to relieve stress. Oats and their extracts contain plant compounds that researchers suggest may improve mood and protect against stress, while probiotics help to populate the gut with beneficial bacteria. Scientists are increasingly making links between good gut health and levels of mood-enhancing chemicals like dopamine.