Nutrition and its impact on stress – guest blog by Maree from Nourishing Life Nutrition
I find when I get busy and stressed the first thing to go is the healthy eating. I automatically reach for easy but unhealthy snacks and excess coffee. Maree from Nourishing Life Nutrition has put some clarity around stress.
Stress is a normal response the body goes through to adjust to a situation when demand has been placed on it. Stress is normal for everyone to experience at some point in time. But it is the amount and frequency as well as how we response and cope with stress that may have a detrimental effect on our health long term.
During times of stress a myriad of physiological reactions take place in the body, starting from the hypothalamus via the pituitary gland to the adrenals – commonly known as the HPA axis activation or stress response. We react to stress with the fight or flight response which floods our body with hormones that raise our blood pressure, speed up the heartbeat and tenses muscles. Metabolism stops to provide extra energy; digestion stops as blood is diverted from the intestines to the muscles. A stressful event initiates this hormone cascade, leading to increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which facilitates alertness and readiness for action. Mostly this is short lived, if it is ongoing it can lead to chronic stress and can result in decreased immunity and increased susceptibility to illness.
There are three phases of stress;
- The alarm phase;
- The resistance phase;
- The exhaustion phase;
The first phase, alarm phase is often associated with the fight of flight response. This is the phase that majority of us will experience at some time in our life. It is thought to be protective of the individual’s survival instinct required to meet emotional crisis, perform strenuous tasks and fight infection.
The resistance phase occurs when an individual has experienced ongoing stress in the alarm phase for a length of time and has now developed a new equilibrium. Often an individual is unaware they are suffering from stress at this stage.
Finally, the exhaustion phase occurs from severe and prolonged stress. The system becomes overwhelmed and the body is unable to maintain the hormonal responses to stress. Prolonged stress in this phase can cause a depletion of cortisol and adrenaline leading to the development of chronic diseases and decreased quality of life.
Clinically speaking, individuals suffering from chronic stress typically present with symptoms that may seem unrelated. These can include constant upset stomach, digestive disturbances, insomnia, depression, fatigue, headache, and irritability. Once a thorough investigation has been carried out it may be found that these symptoms are often a cause of ongoing stress in the resistance or exhaustion phase. They are an indication that the body is unable to cope with the demands being placed on it.
Nutritionally when treating stress, it is important to nourish the body correctly in order to and repair the nervous system, regulate and restore neurotransmitters function and regulate endocrinological function and hormonal release. Strategies to improve health status include;
- Managing positive relationships with food and optimising diet for the individual
- Increasing nutrient status through dietary intervention and appropriate nutritional supplementation
- Developing positive coping mechanisms and reducing negative behaviours used to cope with stress
- Promoting restful sleep, increasing daily exercise and positive social contact
Treating stress nutritionally is one of the first steps to improving your ability to manage and cope with stressful events. A diet made up of quality nutrient dense foods can provide the necessary nutrients to cells of the body to aid in withstanding stress. The object of a nutritionist is to support, encourage and guide patients to their optimal health in a pace and manner that is gentle and comfortable for them.
Maree O’Dwyer – Clinical Nutritionist
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