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  • Writer's pictureNicola Hodges Nutrition

Stress - How nutrition and lifestyle can have a positive impact.

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

We throw the word 'stress' around all of the time. What does it really mean?

There are two types of stress- acute and chronic. Acute stress could be seen as a positive thing. It's instant and helps us to respond immediately to a time-sensitive emergency, e.g running out of the path of a speeding car! Chronic stress on the other hand is the reason that I'm writing this newsletter. Chronic stress can be harmful to our health.

The bodily system we use to cope with long-term stress is called the 'HPA axis'. This stands for hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal axis. This communication system is much more of a 'slow drip' type scenario as opposed to acute stress.

We want the communication in the HPA axis to be crystal clear and highly responsive. It becomes less effective after prolonged chronic stress. Effectively we become what is often called 'burnt out' and suffer adrenal exhaustion which shows itself as low cortisol and low DHEA.

During the initial stages of long term chronic stress, we release cortisol which helps us to make more glucose in the liver to release into the bloodstream. Glucose is also mobilised elsewhere in the body along with protein breakdown within the muscles (this is not good, we want to keep our muscles and not have them eaten up by stress)!

Other symptoms and physical consequences of chronic stress are:

Increased anxiety and depression, increased belly fat, water retention (due to an adrenal steroid hormone called aldosterone being ramped up in order to increase blood volume), heartburn, high blood sugar, a weakened immune system resulting in frequent infections, insomnia, mood issues, low energy levels, high blood pressure, fertility issues, missed periods, reduced libido, erectile dysfunction, heartburn, gut issues due to impaired digestion and finally, an increased risk of a heart attack.

Those of you that are receiving this newsletter because you want to support your thyroid health listen up! Being in a chronic high-stress state hampers the conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to the metabolically active form T3. The thyroid is a highly sentient little organ and does not like stress at all. Those of us with hypothyroidism are often living with some degree of adrenal insufficiency and need to be extra mindful of the effects of stress.

So all in all the consequences of chronic stress on our health are pretty serious! So- what can we do about it?

Firstly let's look at the obvious stuff:

1. Reduce the stressors- if at all possible. If things are getting too much take a realistic look at your life. Only you will know how much rejigging of what is stressing you out is possible. Is it possible to change jobs or ditch some of the things that are causing you stress? Did you know that it's not just life events that can cause chronic stress? Continually over training day after day, year after year and pushing yourself too hard can result in disruption to the HPA axis. This is particularly important to avoid in our 40's when in perimenopause. The adrenal glands are already working hard in the background due to hormonal fluctuations. Yoga is an excellent option as is light to moderate resistance training. If you are starting to find it difficult to recover from exercise afterwards (even if you smashed the workout at the time)- it's time to rethink your approach.

2. Reduce our reaction to stress- we do have some self-regulation when it comes to our reaction. Think breathing techniques, relaxation therapies, yoga, light to moderate exercise, laughter, professional psychotherapy, taking walks in nature or hugging a loved one - that can be a human (or much-loved pet) as it releases oxytocin. My Jack Russell's give THE best hugs!

3. Prioritise sleep- consider 7-9 hours a good night's rest NOT 5 or 6 hours.

In my clinic, I often recommend specially formulated practioner grade natural preparations that can support a good night's sleep. A quick tip that may be worth trying at home is a shot of Montmorency tart cherry juice after your evening meal. I like 'Active edge' cherry juice- (just watch the sugar intake), capsules are available last time I checked. Small pilot studies show that these cherries contain compounds such as natural melatonin, (melatonin is the sleep hormone) and phytochemicals that may also improve tryptophan availability. (Tryptophan is the amino acid 'building block' of serotonin and melatonin).

If the issue is maintaining sleep and waking up way too early I would also want to consider blood sugar balance. Are enough quality protein and good fats being consumed with healthy carbs before bed? If you want to go deeper, functional testing is available- such as organic acid testing. This is a urine test that can give us information about neurotransmitter metabolism, can tell us more about nutrient status, digestive absorption and gut health. It's basically a jolly good health MOT!

I may also recommend a genetic test (simple cheek swab) that shows us if there are genetic variants on the serotonin to melatonin pathway that may need specific nutritional support. This test is also useful for the whole picture surrounding how we deal with stress, it can show us genetic variants that may influence how we deal with adrenaline, dopamine and the production/retention of GABA (the relaxation neurotransmitter).

I do not recommend exercising hard in the evening. Trying to get to sleep whilst buzzing from heavy exercise (and all of the stress hormones that it produces) is not conducive to a good night's sleep!

4. Train your circadian rhythm- go to bed at the same time and rise at the same time. The body loves a routine! Let full spectrum daylight hit your eyes within 30 minutes of waking up. Avoid blue light-emitting devices such as screens and smartphones 2 hours before bed as they can interfere with the production of melatonin. You can get blue light blocking glasses, which may look stupid but who cares if you get a good night's sleep?!

In terms of nutrient-based tips:

1. Cut back or quit stimulants such as coffee, alcohol, sugar and recreational drugs. Fairly obvious I know - but still, so many of us struggle with this.

2. Balance blood sugar with a low GL diet- being on a sugar rollercoaster is a recipe for adrenal dysfunction. What's a low GL diet? It means 'Low glycemic load'- basically healthy starches only and no sweets, high sugar cakes or refined white grain-based flours. The body will make stress hormones in response to sugar dips caused shortly after eating high sugar foods. Low blood sugar is a threat to survival and the body will react accordingly. Paradoxically, eating a high sugar diet will cause low blood sugar not long after consumption due to the body rushing to get the overload of sugar out of the bloodstream. We can only tolerate around 1 tsp of sugar in our blood at any time.

3. Eat adequate animal protein- tryptophan (an amino acid abundant in animal protein) is used as the building block for serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin promotes feelings of psychological wellbeing (when in balance) and melatonin is the sleep neurotransmitter and a major antioxidant. Adequate protein also helps to balance blood sugar and staves off sugar cravings.

4. Eat healthy carbohydrates such as sweet potato, squash and wholegrain rice with your meat or fish as they help to absorb the amino acids. Eating adequate carbohydrates also helps to get serotonin into the brain.

5. Always eat fibre with your meals as it helps to balance blood sugar levels by modulating the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. Eating plenty of different coloured veg should do it!

6. Get your essential fatty acids. These come from walnuts, flax, chia seeds and most importantly oily fish. Oily fish contains the type of fatty acids (DHA and EPA) that can not be substituted with vegetarian options.

7. Vitamin C- good ol' fashioned Vit C is crucial in combatting the harmful effects of stress on the body and helps us to recover more quickly.

8. B vitamins - Most B vitamins are used to maintain the health of the nervous system. Folate (B9) deficiencies have been found to contribute to mental illness. Ensuring adequate folate and addressing deficiencies can support those suffering from stress, panic and depression. B5 (pantothenic acid) is known as the anti-stress vitamin as it supports the adrenal glands. I will cover food sources for B vitamins in a moment. But do eat your greens to get your folate.

9. Magnesium- probably my favourite mineral for stress management. We use up more magnesium when stressed and many of us are deficient in the place. Magnesium is needed to support the function of a gene called COMT. This gene deals with the metabolism of catecholamine hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline and uses magnesium as a cofactor. Whilst catecholamines are associated more with acute stress- they are fired up much more easily after suffering long term stress due to being in a constant state of alert. Magnesium can be found in food form in spinach, pumpkin seeds, cashews and almonds.

10. Selenium and Zinc are also key minerals in helping the body cope with chronic stress. Selenium deficiencies have been shown to be linked with poor adrenal function and depression. Low zinc has also been linked to depression.

Foods to include in times of stress are :

Oily fish - for its essential fatty acid content DHA and EPA. Fish is also a source of zinc and selenium.

Ensure adequate animal protein - aim for a palm-sized amount with each meal. Preferably free-range and organic if possible.

Blueberries and oranges are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants.

Broccoli is a great source of B6 and folate

Walnuts- not only do they look like little brains they are good for the brain too as they are high in some of the essential fatty acids.

Eggs- high in good quality protein and B vitamins plus vitamin D

Grab a banana- preferably not too ripe as they are high in sugar. Bananas contain B6. B6 plays a crucial role in serotonin production.

If you would like to learn more about how nutritional therapy on a 1-2-1 basis can help you, book a free 30-minute discovery call by clicking on the 'book call' button on my home page.

Stay chilled and take good care of yourself,


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