How stress can affect your entire body
How stress can affect your entire body
Chronic stress can have serious health consequences, including weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It may also trigger heart attack and the onset of dementia.
Among all the factors contributing to poor health and early death, stress is perhaps the most pernicious. In past days, the stress response was a lifesaving biological function, enabling us to run from predators or take down prey.
But today, we are turning on the same “lifesaving” reaction to cope with fear of public speaking, difficult bosses, and traffic jams. The sheer number of stress-inducing situations that face us daily can make it difficult to turn the stress response off.
As a result, you may be marinating in destructive stress hormones around the clock, and this can have serious consequences, from adding stubborn fat to your belly to elevating your blood pressure and triggering a heart attack.
How Stress Affects Your Body
To give you a quick overview, when you experience acute stress — be it real or imagined, as your body cannot decipher the difference — your body releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event.
Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases, and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.
When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitized to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.
Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, and cancer. Elevated cortisol levels also affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex. Stress may even trigger the onset of dementia
Weight gain and/or difficulty losing weight in general is a common problem associated with stress. What's worse, stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate as it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you're stressed.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress. While it may seem tempting to drown your anxiety in a bowl of ice cream or calm your nerves with a bag of chips… eating junk foods while stressed may be particularly dangerous to your health. Junk foods will only give you a moment of reprieve. After the initial pleasure wears off, you may find yourself battling mood swings, irritability, and other unpleasant emotions on top of the stress, courtesy of the sugar, trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and whatever other synthetic ingredients you may have consumed.
On the other hand, by choosing healthy foods you can impact your mood on a positive note, helping to relieve tension, stabilize blood sugar, and send your stress packing.
10 Best Foods to Eat for Stress
- Green Leafy Vegetables
Dark leafy greens like spinach are rich in folate, which helps your body produce mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
- Organic Turkey Breast
Turkey is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid (protein building block) that your body converts into serotonin. Pumpkin seeds, nuts, and free-range organic eggs are also rich sources of tryptophan.
- Fermented Foods
The secret to improving your mental health is in your gut, as unhealthy gut flora can have a detrimental impact your brain health, leading to issues like anxiety and depression. Beneficial bacteria have a direct effect on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain.
As explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor with a postgraduate degree in Neurology, toxicity in your gut can flow throughout your body and into your brain, where it can cause symptoms of poor mood, autism, ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, and a whole host of other mental and behavioral disorders.
- Wild-Caught Alaskan Salmon
Found in salmon, sardines, and anchovies, or supplement form, such as krill oil, the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play a role in your emotional well-being. A study in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3, while past research has shown omega-3 fats work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any of the side effects.
Anthocyanins are the pigments that give berries like blueberries and blackberries their deep color. These antioxidants aid your brain in the production of dopamine, a chemical that is critical to coordination, memory function, and your mood.
One study found eating two servings of pistachios a day lowered vascular constriction during stress, which means the load on your heart is reduced since your arteries are more dilated. Not to mention, you might find the rhythmic act of shelling pistachios therapeutic, as doing a repetitive activity can help quiet racing thoughts in your head.
- Dark Chocolate
If you're one of these individuals who gets a nice mood boost whenever you sink your teeth into a bar of pure, unadulterated chocolate, it is not happenstance. There's a chemical reason behind it called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. It's a derivative of the Sanskrit word “bliss,” and one of the great things about chocolate is that it not only produces this compound, it also contains other chemicals that prolong the “feel-good” aspects of anandamide.
One study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology also revealed that drinking an antioxidant-rich chocolate drink equal to about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily felt calmer than those who did not.
It's not technically a food, but a daily dose of sunshine might help stabilize your mood. Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure. In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.
Low vitamin D levels are also associated with an increased risk of panic disorders. While you can get some vitamin D in foods like salmon, egg yolks, and mushrooms, your best solution for optimizing your levels is through sensible sun exposure.
Magnesium, which acts as a precursor for neurotransmitters like serotonin, is well-known for its role in helping to regulate your emotions and enhance well-being.
Seaweed and green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard can be excellent sources of magnesium, as are some beans, nuts, and seeds, like pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame seeds. Avocados also contain magnesium. Juicing your vegetables is an excellent option to ensure you're getting enough of them in your diet.
Avocados provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including potassium, vitamin E, B vitamins, and folate, and, according to research published in the Nutrition Journal, eating just one-half of a fresh avocado with lunch may satiate you if you're overweight, which will help prevent unnecessary snacking later.
Those who ate half an avocado with their standard lunch reported being 40 percent less hungry three hours after their meal, and 28 percent less hungry at the five-hour mark compared to those who did not eat avocado for lunch. The study also found that avocados appear helpful for regulating blood sugar levels. This combination of satiety and blood-sugar regulation can help keep your mood steady, even in times of stress.