Nutrition and lifestyle tips for stress management
The term “burnout” is most commonly applied in the workplace, but in this era of working from home, burnout is back home: between relentless zoom calls, home schooling, and gloomy news feeds, we can’t seem to catch a break. Burnout is a direct result of prolonged exposure to stress. And while most of us know that stress affects our health and well-being, we tend to underestimate the degree to which it affects us.
To fully understand the effects of stress, chronic stress and burnout, it is important to understand science.
Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands and regulated by the HPA axis that connects our adrenal glands to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in our brain. When we experience a stressful event, whether environmental, physical, or emotional, our HPA axis directs the adrenal glands to increase cortisol output. Increased cortisol raises blood glucose levels and stimulates a fight or flight reaction. In combat or flight, the body excludes functions that are not useful in the immediate situation of life or death, such as digestion, immune response, reproduction, and growth. When a stressful event is considered over, the HPA axis works to restore homeostasis.
The effects of stress are cumulative, and when we experience chronic (long-term) stress, we build resistance to cortisol fluctuations, making it difficult for the HPA axis to return the body to normal levels. Unimportant bodily functions are also impaired. The immune system may be working at a weaker capacity, making us vulnerable to disease and inflammation. Digestion can be slowed down, leading to overgrowth of bacteria, bloating, nutritional imbalance, intestinal leakage, food sensitivity and other digestive problems. In women, fertility may be affected and the symptoms of PMS may be intensified.
Chronic stress manifests itself differently in everyone. Symptoms include general fatigue, anxiety, sleep problems, low libido, weight gain or weight loss, infertility, and skin problems such as acne and eczema. Over time, more serious complications can develop. Many of these stress-related illnesses can be cured on their own – we can adopt a new acne skin care routine or work on sleep hygiene for better rest – but when we deal with the symptoms ourselves, we don’t solve the problem. I think of it as a symptom of the stress that strikes a mole: fighting individual problems as they develop without treating the underlying cause.
Prolonged stress coupled with a lack of stress management tools can result in burnout: a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that can affect our mood, immune system, hormones, sleep, and more. Many of our cultural norms are actually signs of burnout: we feel like us should coffee first thing in the morning; other stimulants, such as sugar and refined carbohydrates, that maintain energy throughout the day; and a glass of wine or a cocktail to relax in the evening. Despite our exhaustion, anxiety can keep us awake at night, leaving us tired in the morning and asking for that jerk of caffeine to begin with. Other signs of burnout include lack of motivation or energy, cravings for sweet and salty foods, brain fog, and memory loss.
Almost everyone who comes into my eating practice has had some level of burnout or chronic stress. This is especially true for working mothers who are trying to balance their work full-time and children who work full-time.
STRESS MANAGEMENT AND WASTE TREATMENT
The good news is that the symptoms of burnout and chronic stress can be improved with diet and life interventions that are good for you regardless of your stress level. I usually recommend a combination of these approaches. They work in tandem to reduce stress levels and support the proper functioning of the body’s response to stress.
Cortisol has a natural circadian rhythm as does your sleep cycle: they are highest in the morning, which helps you get out of bed and move, and lowest in the evening, when it’s time to rest. What, how and when you eat plays a major role in regulating cortisol and maintaining a healthy cortisol rhythm. So, if you are looking for a new way to eat stress, this is your ticket.
Start the day with breakfast, which helps control blood sugar levels. Consider low sugar and high protein, with lots of healthy fats and fiber.
Make lunch the biggest meal of the day. Include protein, healthy fats, whole grains and vegetables.
Have a lighter and earlier dinner to promote a peaceful night’s sleep. When we eat, cortisol levels naturally increase slightly. If we eat too close to bedtime, it can disrupt sleep. Try to leave at least three hours between dinner and sleep to give your body time to digest food and allow cortisol levels to drop.
Aim for variety and plenty of vegetables in your meals, along with one serving of whole protein a day. Animal proteins – such as eggs, dairy products, fish, poultry or red meat – offer a full range of amino acids and have the highest bioavailability of nutrients; this means that it is more easily absorbed. If you are vegan or vegetarian, make sure you take at least one serving of complementary proteins (such as beans and rice) or non-GMO soy products a day to ensure you are ingesting all the essential amino acids.
Reduce your intake of caffeine, sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol. You can easily become addicted to this food. If you have ever felt like you needed coffee, a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine, you know what I mean. A moderate intake of this food can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, but sometimes we have to sign up with ourselves. It’s often easier for me to go cold turkey for a while to overcome addiction and curb cravings. (My Reset the program is great for this.) The first few days can be difficult, but you’ll find your natural energy soon after – and it’s well worth it.
Eat balanced meals at regular times of the day. And don’t go longer than three or four hours of wakefulness without eating. This pattern helps regulate blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy cortisol rhythm.
In addition to a healthy diet, lifestyle interventions are crucial for stress management. Here are a few places to start.
Give priority to sleep. Lack of sleep leads to increased cortisol levels, increased irritability and dependence on stimulants to survive the day.
Make an effort to remove unnecessary stressors. Sometimes triggers are inevitable, but if you can turn off the news or turn off the negative energy, do it.
Provide in your schedule places for free time and activities that you really love. If you like to paint, read novels, magazines, ride a bike or get a manicure, try to find time for it.
Exercise daily and spend time in nature. Sometimes you need a quick video to exercise or walk outside – twenty minutes of movement goes a long way.
Develop daily mindfulness or meditation practice. Studies show that meditation alone can effectively reduce cortisol levels and help improve circadian rhythms.
Since we use a 360-degree approach here, I would be embarrassed not to mention supplements that can support the body’s response to stress. My favorites are ashwagandha, rhodiola, fish oil, L-theanine, B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C. They are most effective when used in conjunction with a healthy diet and stress management techniques.
Some of these tools may seem easier said than done, and I get it. Start with one thing – maybe breakfast, exercise or meditation – and build from there. Keep a diary to track your progress and find support and community wherever you can. (I make a diary called The Well Journal, which provides space for all of the above.)
Mia Rigden, MS, CNS, is a certified nutritionist, health coach and founder TASTE, a private food practice based in Los Angeles. She collaborates with clients around the world through one-on-one tutoring, Mom Group, and The Reset, a twenty-one-day whole food program. Rigden is also the author The Well Journal and the chef will announce in 2022.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if it contains advice from doctors and physicians. This article is not and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon in certain medical advice. The views expressed in this article are those of the experts and do not necessarily represent the views of the goop.