Stress is a vicious circle. The more life throws at us, the less time we have to concentrate on the things that are truly important – like our health. During testing times, when the body needs the most nourishment, our healthy eating habits are easily sabotaged by convenience foods and the gym becomes a distant memory. I don’t blame anybody with a busy lifestyle who does not want to spend hours in the kitchen sprouting, blending, grating and juicing. I also have complete understanding that sometimes work and family life must take priority, often at the expense of our own wellbeing. Stress will always be a part of life. While I can give nutritional advice to my clients about how to cope better with stressful situations, I can’t lift their daily workload of chores, commitments and obligations. We can’t escape the clutches of modern life but we can change the way we cope with it.
We have an arsenal of weapons at our disposal, a colourful nutritional armour to defend ourselves against the onslaughts of stress and disease. I am not just about to give you stress management tips, I want to give you a sure-fire list of five proven strategies for how to combat stress and how to de-stress effectively! This can be achieved by following simple nutritional strategies which you will be able to implement right away.
Convenience is of the utmost importance because nutritional changes and dietary requirements should not add additional stress to an already busy lifestyle! Get into the right mindset: you will do what you can to make the right choices but don’t beat yourself up if you let your good intentions slip every now and again. You are only human and losing your mind over a bar of chocolate is just not worth the extra aggravation. It requires a minimal amount of commitment on your part and the most important thing to remember is the better you nourish your body, the better it will perform. Every morning before you get out of bed, lie on your back for two minutes with your eyes still closed. Imagine and see yourself breezing through the day, eating fantastically healthy meals and feeling the positive impact nutritious food has on your body and your mind. This might seem like a small thing to do but it is vital to give you motivation and keep you on the right track. Do not skip this bit! In addition to getting you through a stressful episode in one piece, we do not want you to crash and burn afterwards. You should emerge on the other side just as bright and glowing, full of energy and ready for the next challenge. But don’t forget, it is perfectly normal to feel tired at the end of a hard day. Trust your body, it will send you the right signals when it is time to rest.
Have breakfast, at all costs!
While we sleep, our blood sugar levels fall considerably, so that upon waking food is required to provide energy and to lift those sugar levels gently. If the desired nourishment does not arrive (because you are too busy to have breakfast), blood glucose levels will fall so low that the situation is perceived as additional stress by your body, pumping cortisol into your bloodstream. Your stress hormone cortisol is considerably overstretched as it is and it wreaks havoc with your blood sugar levels. It stimulates your liver to produce more glucose and release it into your bloodstream, spiking your blood sugar levels dangerously high. What follows is a rollercoaster ride of sugar high and lows, fuelled by sweet snacks, caffeine and some alcohol in the evening. This is the best route you can take to weight gain, fluctuating energy levels, unhealthy snacking and the need for convenience foods because your eating habits have become too erratic. A quick but substantial breakfast is the key to steady energy levels for the day ahead, even more so during times of stress. Planning is of the essence. Mix some breakfast oats and a selection of nuts and seeds with coconut oil and a little honey. Spread on a baking tray on a Sunday and let it cool in the fridge overnight. Come Monday morning, a whole week’s worth of breakfast will reveal itself to you! Just cut into bars and eat on the go.
The caffeine must go!
Even though you are heavily reliant on your daily brew to get you out of the house, it is one of the most counterproductive things you can do. During the early days of stress, your adrenal glands are able to produce enough cortisol to keep you going. If life continues to ask the impossible of you, your adrenal glands will become weak and cortisol production will fall. At this point we have to supply the body with artificial energy in the form of caffeine and we start to look towards stimulants to keep us going. Caffeine pushes your poor adrenals to work even harder, ultimately bringing them even closer to exhaustion. Side-effects of caffeine and exhausted adrenal glands often result in symptoms of anxiety, poor sleep and nervousness. It is a big ask of anybody to give up caffeine because the side effects are not pleasant. As drinking coffee or tea can be addictive, your body may well show some signs of withdrawal. Expect some low energy and headaches for the first five to seven days but once you have conquered your addiction, your energy levels will go through the roof. I often recommend some liquorice root or Korean ginseng in capsule form to take alongside breakfast which often makes the switch to a stimulant-free lifestyle easier.
Have some greens every day!
Green leafy vegetables are an important ingredient for health but they become indispensable during stressful times. Spinach, kale, watercress and other cruciferous vegetables contain all the essential nutrients for your adrenal glands to work efficiently. They are a rich source of B vitamins, folic acid and vitamin C, with good levels of magnesium and calcium. Grab a pack of baby spinach on your way to work and munch on it during your commute or keep a bag of watercress ready in the fridge and add a pack of smoked mackerel for a super-quick salad supper.
Switch off your mind!
Relaxing your mind is often a bigger challenge than relaxing your body. During demanding times, your sympathetic nervous system takes charge, upregulating neural activity in the brain so you can think faster and concentrate better. This precise mechanism comes in handy initially but, after a while, it makes it impossible to ‘switch off’. Mindfulness meditation, even just a few minutes daily, can dramatically decrease feelings of stress and calm your mind. The benefits of meditation go far beyond the immediate calm felt when your meditation session ends – it can change your general mood state and has even been shown to increase grey matter in the brain. Don’t think of meditation as purely being about relaxation – it’s more about active training of the mind to increase awareness and can even enhance cognitive function.
We’ve all been there, lying awake at night, tired but with a head full of worries and thoughts spinning in circles. Having a good night’s sleep is essential to conquering stress. This is the time when the body regenerates and repairs. Melatonin, the hormone produced during sleep is also a very powerful antioxidant, protecting us from damaging free radicals produced during stress. Start off with a good dose of magnesium, 600mg a day or two 15-minute soaks in an Epsom salt bath. This will relax your muscles and your mind. Additionally, I like to use lemon balm tea. It is relaxing, relieves anxiousness, takes just five minutes to brew and tastes wonderful. Amino acids such as theanine are amazing at promoting calming neurotransmitter activity and best taken 30 minutes before sleep. You will be stunned by the benefits of just one good night’s sleep and rest – your adrenal glands will thank you for it!
Exercise – just a few minutes is enough!
Exercise is paramount during stress to keep blood sugar levels low, prevent weight gain and promote circulation and a well-functioning immune system. Going to the gym for an hour each day is not realistic, nor is it healthy. Vigorous and long workout sessions put even more stress on your body and your adrenal glands so that, instead of feeling regenerated, your gym session will leave you exhausted and vulnerable. The key is to find a workout that is fast, targeted and rejuvenating at the same time, without putting yet more pressure on your fragile system. Yoga and Pilates are ideal choices and just ten minutes a day, first thing in the morning or during your lunch break, will be sufficient to lower stress hormones and balance blood sugar levels. An even more effective strategy is to exercise only three times a week for eight minutes but at very high intensity with short recovery intervals. This type of exercise is called High Intensity Interval Training and can bring better health benefits than hours on the tread mill.
Just a few simple steps can make the difference between conquering your stressors and succumbing to adrenal fatigue. The better you nourish your adrenal glands during demanding times, the less likely you are to experience side effects of stress, such as poor digestion and lowered immunity. If you would like to go the extra mile, make sure you take a good quality multi vitamin and fish oil every day to counteract nutritional shortfalls and common deficiencies.