​Nutrition and Stress: Part 1

Tuesday 08 May 2018

This week I thought that it would be a good idea to look at stress and how nutrition can have a positive impact on supporting the body.

Working as one of the nutritional advisors for Maggie’s I am only too aware that when I see people or message people seeking advice about food and nutrition that they have a great deal to cope with both physically and emotionally and that nutrition is only one part of the whole picture.

Nutrition is of course vital to well being but there is quite naturally a great deal of very real stress and anxiety that comes with a diagnosis of cancer and also dealing with the treatment regime’s etc. that go with it.

Stress is a reaction to what’s happening
Stress and anxiety of course comes in many forms. I did read somewhere that stress is not an actual event in your life but stress is your body’s reaction to that event. Quite an interesting statement.

Triggers for stress
What we do know is that stress can be triggered in many ways. It could be psychological triggers like anxiety, anger and aggravation or be Physiological triggers like surgery, pain, poor sleep etc.
Stress may have metabolic triggers like free radical damage from eating damaged/processed fats, inflammation and pain, poor diet and poor blood sugar control or even hunger
Finally environmental triggers that come from chemical exposure, infections, noise, etc. In most cases it can be a combination of several of these.

Effect of stress on the body
We are of course designed to deal with a certain level of stress by producing hormones that support the body through the process. I will be talking a lot about the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands that sit just on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is also known as cortisone or hydrocortisone. It is a steroid hormone and without it our bodies would not be able to respond effectively to stress. Cortisol stimulates the body to release glucose from the liver, amino acids from the tissues and fatty acids from our fat stores into the blood stream all designed to become a source of extra energy, energy for us to be able to deal with the stress. The fight or Flight syndrome, both fight or flight require instant energy.

Some stress can be good Short sharp stress is actually a very natural process and one that actually can be beneficial. When we have short sharp stress we produce many hormones including cortisol. Cortisol actually makes us feel very alert, boosts our immunity and gives us a surge of energy to deal with the pending stress. Once the stress has passed then our body’s cortisol levels return to normal.

The problems with stress arise when it is a prolonged sustained process when we are constantly having to cope with a situation that keeps our bodies in the alert mode. Under these circumstances the cortisol that we need to produce continually because of the continued stress will eventually start to have negative effects on us.

It starts to suppress the efficiency of our immune systems, the extra sugar being produced gets stored as fat and the amino acids released form the muscles start the process of tissue breakdown, loss of muscle and bone density.

Not a very beneficial state to be in I am sure that you would agree. The problem is that most of us seem to live with this continued stress and seem to have no way out of it.

How can we manage stress
There are of course many ways that we can help to control and deal with our stress. I know that Maggie’s offers  exercises sessions eg yoga or tai chi, mindful meditation, as well as relaxation and stress management groups and support specialists to  talk it through with. Any one of these is hugely beneficial, it is just a case of finding one or two that would help you.

They won’t of course take the stress away but they give you tools and techniques that you can employ to help you manage .

It is worth noting that when the body is under continued stress apart from the negative effects that I have already mentioned the body naturally excretes large amounts of the mineral magnesium and  vitamin C and in order to produce sufficient cortisol the body also needs the B vitamins, levels of which can soon become depleted unless replaced through diet. These are a few things that we will be looking at in detail but first I want to talk about blood sugar control and how this can affect stress levels.

Blood sugar and stress
We have talked about sugar in a previous blog . When we allow our blood sugar to go very high (hyperglycaemia), by eating a sugary food or a refined carbohydrate (the white products that are heavily processed), to deal with this we produce the hormone insulin.

The role of insulin is to carry the sugar out of the blood and to take it to the cells of the body where it is stored as fat or used as instant energy. All very natural process, but insulin is a very efficient hormone and generally after an hour or so of eating something sweet our blood sugar will plummet and go very low (hypoglycaemic).

I think that we have all experienced this especially around four o, clock. Many people talk to me about the four o,clock dip. When the blood sugar becomes very low we naturally crave sugar, feel a bit moody and edgy and lack concentration, it can also affect our sleep pattern, sound familiar?

Unless we are aware of what is going on we usually reach for the biscuits or chocolate and hey ho the blood sugar shoots up again and we then get into a yo yo cycle of high and low blood sugar. This is not a good scenario to get into as I am sure you can imagine least of all because it creates ‘internal stress’, and then of course the body will naturally go into the stress cycle producing cortisol; with its effects that have been explained.

So the obvious answer to relieve yourself of one possible cause of stress is to eat foods that will not give you highs and lows of blood sugar. This obviously means to avoid the sweet sugary foods and those that have been heavily processed or refined and instead choose to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds (ideal snacks), whole grain foods like whole meal bread, oats, oat cakes etc, and also to include some protein at each meal (meat, eggs, fish, peas, beans, lentils) because protein foods help to keep blood sugar stable.

As I have said this is one way of reducing our stress, I know that it will not take away the external influences but will at least alleviate one type which can only be positive and beneficial.

Interestingly enough the Harvard Medical School published results of a number of research studies each showing the importance of a whole food diet. The studies showed that people who ate a whole food diet had lower levels of stress hormones.

So on to magnesium which as we know is excreted during times of stress. Magnesium is a mineral involved in at least 300 enzyme activities in the body and is needed by every cell of the body to produce energy, so no wonder when we are continually stressed we get tired. The only way to help with this is to try and include plenty of magnesium rich foods in the diet.

Sources of magnesium The richest sources of magnesium are found in almonds, cashew nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, molasses, buckwheat, millet, brown rice, quinoa, figs, apricots and parsley.

A note on magnesium supplements Some people may choose to take a supplement. Magnesium in a citrate form is easily absorbed and utilized but magnesium glycinate is also easily utilised and has been shown not to upset the digestive system, 3-500mg a day is recommended. Obviously of you do decide to use a supplement and are undergoing treatment then run it past your oncologist first.

Failing a supplement try and enrich the diet as much as you can and obviously combine this with good blood sugar control and perhaps a stress busting therapy that I mentioned at the beginning.

I will continue this topic next week, looking at the role of vitamin C the B vitamins, and herbal adaptogens that have been shown to support the adrenal glands in times of stress. I will also add a recipe or two.

For those who are interested in reading more about Cortisol there is a very good book on the market called The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott explaining practical ways in which we can reduce our stress levels naturally, improve our sleep and so improve our health.  I use it to dip in and out of, it is well explained but quite wordy.

 See also Sugar blog 2012 May

Blog originally written by Caroline June 2013

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