Stress: such a pervasive word in modern society, with countless articles on the mood-food connection, and ways to combat it through a variety of means whether they are exercise, meditation or introspection. But what exactly is stress, how do we define it in physiological terms? How do we measure it? Most importantly, how can we use our diet to help manage it?
There are many different kinds of stress, to be sure. People can experience emotional, environmental or physiological stress based upon the situation. While it is difficult to measure the amount of emotional or environmental stress, we can more accurately measure the physical stress response in the body. According to Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson and author of The Relaxation Response say stress is broadly defined as any situation eliciting the ‘fight or flight’ response. Therefore, it is any situation that requires a change in behavior on the scale of losing a job, or being pushed out of your comfort zone in any number of ways, be it large or small. Benson states that “when we are faced with situations that require an adjustment of our behavior, an involuntary response increases our blood pressure, heart rate, rate of breathing, blood flow to the muscles, and metabolism, preparing us for conflict or escape.” Some of the immediate and measurable effects of stress include these symptoms, while longer-term effects may include migraines, reduced energy, insomnia, and even cardiovascular disorders.
Certainly, the fight or flight response is not biologically designed to hurt us, either. Rather, it is a behavioral trait that evolved as a survival instinct, and, some would argue, can actually be beneficial if perceived in the right way. Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal delivered a TEDTalks Health seminar illuminating the impact that the perception of stress can have on our health. In her talk, she references a study of 30,000 adults in the United States followed for eight years that were asked two questions: 1) how much stress have you experienced in the last year? 2) Do you believe stress is harmful for your health? While those who noted higher stress-levels had a 43 percent higher risk of dying. Remarkably this only held true for those who also believed that stress was harmful. Those who experienced stress but did not believe it to be harmful did not experience any increase in mortality.
So, what can we conclude? Kelly McGonigal would argue that stress is a completely natural part of life that can and should be viewed as helpful for performance – which we can learn to be ‘better at stress.’ Nevertheless, this doesn’t negate the physiological symptoms that stress induces regardless of how it is perceived. Here we will discuss some of the methods we can use to manage stress vis-a-vis diet and lifestyle factors, in addition to, perhaps, changing our mental outlook.
When examining the diet-stress relationship, some of the most potent compounds for combating stress include omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. Because the human brain is approximately 80 percent fat, omega-3s are critical for normal mental functioning. As one of the best sources of omega-3s in nature, fish are therefore an excellent addition to the diet during times of high anxiety. In fact, studies in Finland have shown that consuming fish 2-3 times per week is linked to a 50 percent lower rate of depression!
Many other studies also support the anti-depressant effects of omega-3s from fish. In her book The Jungle Effect, Nutritionist Dr. Daphne Miller studied cold spots (low incidence) around the world for factors ranging from longevity to diabetes. In her research, she found that Iceland is a ‘cold spot’ for depression, with the average Icelander consuming 225 lbs. of fish per person per year (compared with 147 lbs. per person/yr. in Japan). Keep in mind, however, that consuming too much fish may expose the body to elevated levels of mercury. Light, green fish such as anchovies, catfish, clams, herring, and trout are best when consuming in excess of twice per week. Alternatively, fish oil or omega-3 supplements can be purchased over the counter as a dietary aid after consultation with your physician.
The other major anti-stress compound is B vitamins, of which bee pollen is an excellent source. Not only does bee pollen contain more amino acids than beef, eggs or cheese, it is considered one of nature’s most complete foods in terms of vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content. Bee pollen truly is a miracle food, and you can read more about its many health benefits by following this link: http://www.mercola.com/article/diet/bee_pollen.htm. One of the best ways to incorporate bee pollen into the diet is adding to smoothies or shakes, or simply sprinkling over cereal and salads. Use in moderation, however, as the taste can be potent and you will want to make sure that no allergic reactions occur.
Finally, leafy greens have been shown to combat the physical effects of stress by containing folate, which produces the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain. Furthermore, if you follow the chakra system, green foods are associated with the heart center responsible for regulating compassion and empathy. McGonigal pointed out in her TED Talk that one of the by-products of stress is the production of oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘hugging hormone.’ This hormone is designed to help you seek support in stressful situations by surrounding yourself with others who care for your well-being. Therefore, consuming more green foods in times of stress helps this process of healing and solidarity through promoting meaningful connections with others. As she so aptly puts it, “chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.”
In addition to your diet, aromatherapy is another method you can use to relax. Charlynn Avery, an aroma therapist at Aura Cacia (https://www.auracacia.com) recommends using essential oils such as lavender, chamomile or rosehip to release tension. One technique of diffusing oils is to place a few drops onto a candle before lighting it and then letting the scent spread throughout the room. The subtle chemistry from the plant source is translated to these oils and they can have a calming neurological and even meditative effect. Neroli oil has also been shown to combat insomnia, one of the long-term effects of chronic stress, and many essential oils do double duty as pain killers and an anti-fungal such as frankincense or sandalwood, respectively.
In closing, stress has become an inevitable part of our fast-paced, data driven world. But remember, there are many tools available to help you manage its symptoms and even use them to your advantage! Consuming excess sugar or fatty foods will unfortunately just do more harm. With 350,000 different edible plants in the world, the options for meeting stress with a healthy diet head-on are bountiful, indeed.