With the ever increasing demands and pressures of life, it is so easy to get caught up in it all and become overwhelmed.  We so often feel like we have a to do list that never gets ticked off, and spend all weekend trying to catch up on everything. All too soon it is Monday again and the cycle continues.

This cycle may not have consequences at first, but after months or even years it can really take its toll.  Nutritional status plays a HUGE role in the physiological stress response that occurs in the body.

The Stress Response

The stress response is controlled by a part of your nervous system which you have no control over.  By this I mean that there is a system in the body which is responsible for keeping the heart beating, healing a cut or growing your hair - things that happen without you having to tell them to.  When you get stressed, whether this is physical or emotional stress, this part of your nervous system releases hormones and neurotransmitters to prepare your body to either 'fight or flight'.  The body believes that you are in danger at this point, and is doing its best to keep you alive.  These are some of the things that happen:

  • Adrenaline and cortisol are released, and production of other hormones (such as your reproductive hormones) is shut down, as these are not important to keep you alive

  • Your digestion shuts down as all the blood is drawn away from the digestive tract to your arms and legs so that you can run

  • Your heart rate and blood pressure increase

  • Concentration and short-term memory is impaired

  • Sleep is disrupted as your body will not allow you to fall into a deep sleep in case you are attacked

  • The body chooses to burn sugar over fat because it wants a quick energy source

Your nervous system doesn't realise that you might just be feeling anxious because you have a big meeting, had too much coffee, have to make a difficult phone call, or have a tight deadline.  It thinks that you are in danger, and prepares your body accordingly.  Being in this state long-term can cause IBS type issues, hormonal imbalances and burn out.

How to Fix It

The right nutrients can really improve how your body responds to stress.  It is really important to make sure that you are getting enough protein. Protein is not just for muscle growth - it is also needed to make neurotransmitters (like serotonin which makes you feel happy), to make digestive enzymes to break down your food, to be able to absorb carbohydrates and fats properly, and to make hormones. We are literally made of proteins.

The right kinds of fat also need to be included in the diet. Our cells are made up of fatty acids, and these are what protects us from irritants that out skin comes into contact with. The types of fats found in avocado, olive oil, fish, nuts and seeds are highly beneficial for the brain and have been shown to improve depression.

However, when you are stressed you will likely reach for something sugary. This might make you feel good for a moment, but it will not help in the long term. High sugar diets in fact cause inflammation in the brain and can cause memory problems due to the hormonal changes that occur with high sugar intake. They also mess with your blood sugar levels, and once these come crashing down after the sugar hit you will be left feeling even worse.

So really, meals and snacks should always include a good amount of protein and healthy fats. For breakfast perhaps you could have an omelette filled with vegetables, lunch could be a quinoa salad with chicken and avocado, dinner could be roast pumpkin, salmon and greens. To make these vegan try scrambled tofu, chickpeas at lunch and a lentil stew with vegetables and whole grains for dinner. Protein must be included!

The factors in your life which are contributing to the stress also need to be addressed.  You won't necessarily be able to change all of the things causing you to worry, but identifying them is the first step.  Then strategies such as a daily meditation practice, keeping a grateful diary, or going to a restorative yoga class can be really helpful.  You are probably wondering when you would have the time to do any of that.  Start small! Just taking 10 deep belly breaths before you get out of bed in the morning will help to calm the nervous system.

Mindset plays a huge part in all of this.  There will always be things to do, but your approach  can change how you feel about it.  You deserve to live a life that you enjoy, and time spent making that a reality is never wasted.  So let go of the guilt and tend to yourself - your body, family and friends will thank you for it!

The Take Home Message

Feeling tired and moody is not simply a part of getting older, or having more responsibilities.  These factors can contribute, but they do not mean that you have to feel this way.  There are so many things that can be done, through both diet and lifestyle, to help you to feel good again!