Managing Stress Through Nutrition
Updated: May 16
I know I'm not alone when I say the last two years have been a rollercoaster. Besides being in a pandemic, I was also in a rigorous dietetics program for those two years and working a part-time job for most of it as well. Despite being in a healthcare focused program that talks a lot about stress reduction, I was not doing my best at managing my own stress. I would max out all my energy on school and work and then wonder why I was having constant emotional breakdowns and snapping at my husband. Does this sound familiar?
Not only does stress affect us emotionally, but it can cause physical symptoms too. Digestive symptoms such as diarrhea are common with chronic stress. This stress can effect our microbiome, triggering overproduction of bad bacteria, which go on to produce byproducts that can leak into our blood stream if our gut barrier isn't strong enough (and guess what helps strengthen our gut barrier? Good bacteria). This byproduct can induce low levels of inflammation in the body leading to a host of hormonal and metabolic complications. It can affect our sex hormones which can lead to lower sex drive and abnormal menstruation, and even produce more cortisol (the stress hormone) which further affects our stress levels and also our microbiome and fat storage. This creates a vicious cycle of stress and destruction to our gut. Higher levels of cortisol play a role in more long-term diseases as well like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
So what can we do to reduce stress levels? Practicing self-care (yoga, a bubble bath, your favorite TV show, getting enough sleep) is definitely an important aspect of managing stress, but your eating habits can play a role too! Managing stress through nutrition and what we eat can be helpful in helping our bodies feel good.
When we are busy and overwhelmed, we often forget to eat. If you are often forgetting to eat during stressful days, schedule time out of your day for meals and bring snacks on the go. Setting timers on your phone can be a great reminder!
Set aside time for meal prep
Setting aside time to prepare meals can help with eating at regular times. Even if it is just simple meals (which I am a fan of), it can be so beneficial to have some items ready to go in a pinch. Precut vegetables or frozen veggie bags are my go-tos when I am too stressed to cook. Making one-pot meals can also cut down on prep time and can be made in large batches to have for the week or freeze for the future.
Fiber makes our microbiome happy. It feeds the good bacteria which help keep the gut wall in tact. It also bulks up our stool, making our bowel movements more regular. Veggies, fruits, seeds (like flax seed or chia seeds), and whole grains are great sources of fiber.
Staying hydrated is important regardless of stress levels. Drinking at least 64 oz. per day will keep your body happy and can help with brain fog as well.
Mindful eating for managing stress
Even if we remember to eat and include all the fiber and water, we can often be disengaged from our meals. We might eat while driving, scroll through our phones, or zone out in front of the TV. While there is a time and place for a good movie snack or you need to eat on the go because you're late for work, I recommend trying to be fully present for at least one meal a day. Disconnecting from the meal can lead to over eating and leave you feeling uncomfortable afterwards. Focusing only on the meal allows you to enjoy the food you're eating, decompress from your day, and you're more likely to "hear" your fullness cues when they pop up.
While food isn't the magical answer to reducing or removing stressors, it can help us manage them a lot better! If you think you need help managing stress and are feeling overwhelmed, seeking out a therapist or even just talking to a friend can be beneficial too. It isn't always easy to manage stress when we live busy lives. However, it is important to recognize your specific signs of stress, practice self-care, and seek help when you need it.