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It’s a documented fact that in the wake of 9/11, Americans turned to fried chicken, ice cream, macaroni and cheese and other down-home dishes, looking for reassurance and solace. No surprises there: Comfort eating is a common reaction to stress. But an apple-pie diet is hardly a smart solution to enduring agitation, worry or distress. Prolonged periods of stress can lead to health problems, and poor nutrition makes you more vulnerable still. It can also make you slower to bounce back.

The good news is that finding more intelligent ways to refuel can help to reduce the impact of stress on your body. Bolstering your nutritional reserves before the screws tighten can help you head off problems. And cultivating good habits means you’re less likely to fill your tank with nutrient-poor snacks and fast food when the crunch times hit.

We know that stress takes a nasty toll on the human body. Whatever your health weakness is – migraines, acne, stomach aches, irritable bowel or a bad back – a bout of mental pressure is almost guaranteed to aggravate it. Over the long-term, exposure to stress is even more nefarious, potentially increasing your risk of mental illness or cardiovascular disease.

Why do trouble and strife exacerbate so many health problems? For one thing, our emotional response to them triggers the release of hormones that monopolize micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in the body. These same hormones have a catabolic effect on tissues, breaking them down to fuel the stress reaction. Once you understand how this works, you’ll see why fueling for stress is serious business.

With a little care, you can eat in ways that help moderate the negative effects of your body’s stress response, and avoid the eating habits that tend to make matters worse. Let’s start by looking at the body-level response:

Hormonal Frenzy. Stress causes the adrenal glands to secrete two hormones, adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol (more on that later). Adrenaline, which stimulates your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, is an emergency-survival hormone. Its production takes priority over everything else in your body and may reduce the body’s reserve of certain vitamins and minerals. Adrenaline prompts the release of stored glycogen, spiking your blood-sugar levels in anticipation of any necessary energy bursts.

Digestive Downturn. In a crisis situation, your body’s primordial fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, your heart beats faster to circulate oxygen, your eyes dilate to see better, and your muscles are primed to react. This reaction takes priority over things like digesting food and distributing nutrients. As a result, when adrenaline is churned out at low levels around the clock (as it is in our modern life), it has a tendency to sap nutritional stores, disrupt digestion and alter body chemistry.

Nutrient shortages. Because stress consumes nutrients by the bucketload, it’s hardly surprising that other physiological functions tend to degrade when you’re under pressure: Wound healing slows and skin health deteriorates (healing requires zinc and vitamin C); energy levels plummet (B vitamins and vitamin C are fundamental to the energy cycle in every cell); muscles start to spasm (a sign of magnesium depletion); and headaches and migraines increase (these are often related to magnesium imbalance).

Fat production. Stress disrupts our body’s metabolic processes and can cause significant changes in body chemistry. Take, for example, the impact of the stress hormone cortisol. Pamela Peeke, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fight Fat After Forty and Body for Life for Women, found that young women with depression had elevated cortisol levels, stimulating the development of visceral fat around their abdominal organs.

The 1995 study found the effect was the same even in women who appeared slim. “This is logical, because we need fuel from fat to deal with stressful events,” Peeke says. “The fat is located near the liver to be turned into instant fuel. When the stress is continual, however, this mechanism is not turned off, [and] this visceral fat leads to a number of health problems.” Many of those problems fall under the label “Metabolic Syndrome X,” a cluster of related conditions including diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease.

Why Does Stress Stimulate Appetite?

There’s a reason we turn to food when under stress. And it’s directly related to the hormonal stress cycle that naturally occurs in the body when pressure sets in.

Stress prompts the hypothalamus to secrete one hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which then signals the pituitary gland to spit out a second hormone, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). A series of complex events follows, ending with the release of a type of steroid called glucocorticoids, which play a part in regulating blood-sugar metabolism. Crucially, CRF suppresses appetite during your initial response to stress. But when the glucocorticoids spring into action later, attempting to replenish the body’s fuel stores, the effect is hunger pangs.

Brain drain. While your body is preoccupied with hormonal production and response, the brain is neglected. Suddenly, it’s hungry as a bear. Your gray matter runs on glucose, and when adrenaline starves your brain cells of it, channeling the fuel to other body functions, you may suddenly feel the onset of a headache or fatigue. In response, the brain sends out an SOS: “Get me some fuel, double-quick, please.”

At this moment, self-discipline, also known as “mind over matter,” often goes out the window. Even the most health-conscious eaters feel the pull of stimulants like sugar and caffeine. Others turn to alcohol, a depressant, to unwind and dull the effects of stress. Such quick fixes, however, can have adverse effects.

Sugar fix. In bad times, it’s common to feel a hankering for chocolate bars and soda. Sugar affects us in numerous ways. It toys with our beta-endorphin and dopamine levels. Sugar also seems to boost levels of serotonin, a feel-good chemical in the brain (though this process of stimulation is still poorly understood). And refined sugars, unencumbered by fiber, are quickly converted into glucose, the fuel on which our bodies run. In tough times, sugar is a quick fix.

But gorging on sugar isn’t smart. You know how you feel when your blood-sugar levels spike and then plummet after a sugar binge: You become crabby, sleepy and possibly shaky. This only worsens stress levels. Basically, sugary foods perpetuate the stress cycle.

Caffeine crutch. A shot of coffee will undoubtedly help you concentrate and improve mental stamina during stressful periods – in part because it boosts adrenaline. A 2002 study in Psychosomatic Medicine reported that 500 milligrams of caffeine increased the levels of adrenaline excreted during the workday and evening by 32 percent.

But caffeine not only stomps on the accelerator, it also blocks access to the brakes. In the body, it adheres to the adenosine receptors on nerve cells. This prevents adenosine, a chemical manufactured in the brain and designed to slow nerve-cell activity, from parking in its usual spot, so it can’t do its usual job of opening blood vessels and inducing calm.

Alcohol Rub. It goes without saying that a double whiskey before a stressful presentation is out of the question. But even cocktails and beer after work should be consumed in moderation. Alcohol can leave you dehydrated, interfere with digestion and sleep, put a strain on your liver and kidneys, and slow your recovery from the effects of stress. If you enjoy the occasional nightcap or glass of wine at the end of a particularly stressful day, chase it with water.

Shield Yourself

Responding to stress without reaching for unhealthy foods requires discipline – and a plan.

The first thing is to view change in a positive way. After all, one reason we don’t make dietary changes is that we don’t like to feel deprived. And dieting can actually be another significant source of mental stress. So don’t think about what you shouldn’t consume: caffeine, sugar, fat, alcohol. Instead, zero in on the positive habits you’ve already developed. How can you make small, sustainable additions that will have a cumulative effect over time?

Build a reserve. Now is the time to start building a bulwark against stress. Putting deposits in your nutritional bank account today ensures that tomorrow, when the tough times hit, you’ll be prepared. Start with a good breakfast every day. A good multivitamin with adequate supplies of vitamin C and B-complex is a smart addition to a diet, but good sleep, regular exercise and at least three well-proportioned meals a day will also pad your nutritional nest.

Smart snacking. When stress attacks, it’s the little stuff that counts most. An ideal snack balances blood sugar and positively affects brain chemicals, while sparing you processed sugar and trans fats. It includes protein, good carbs, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Some strategic snack choices include:

  • Unsalted nuts or seeds and some berries or dried fruit
  • Yogurt topped with flaked coconut and chopped figs
  • Cheese cubes with grapes
  • Strips of ham wrapped around pitted prunes
  • Half an avocado with a few shrimp
  • Vegetable sticks dipped in guacamole or tzatziki sauce
  • A cup of warm vegetable soup
  • Rye crackers with cottage cheese or hummus

Three-part meals. Stress or no stress, one good guideline for healthy meals is to divide your plate into thirds (the same rule can be applied to snacks). One-third of your meal should consist of low-fat protein, one-third whole-grain or vegetable starches, and one-third nonstarchy vegetables or fruits.

Low-fat proteins. For meat eaters, this food group includes lean meat, poultry, game and fish. Vegetarian sources of protein include eggs, beans, legumes, cheese, nuts and seeds. Yogurt and milk have useful amounts of protein, though if you are watching your weight, you may want to choose reduced-fat versions. Dairy products also are rich in calcium, a mineral important for nerve function. One of the best sources is canned fish that includes bones, such as salmon and sardines.

Whole grains. Unlike simple carbs such as table sugar or fructose – both of which have small molecules that are rapidly absorbed during digestion – complex carbs consist of large molecules that require some time to break down. This moderates the flow of blood sugar into your blood stream. Whole-grain products, including brown rice, whole-wheat bread and pasta, muesli, rolled oats, wheat berries, and quinoa pilaf, are rich in complex carbohydrates. Such foods also contain fiber, which is good for the digestive tract, plus they have a far better nutrient profile than refined grains.

Fruits and vegetables. Stress and poor diet can increase free radicals in your body. These radicals (altered oxygen molecules) damage body tissues and affect the immune system, but they can be countered with antioxidants, including vitamins A, C and E as well as minerals selenium and zinc. Edible plants contain thousands of vital antioxidants. All plants also contain phytochemicals, some of which boost detoxification in the liver by enhancing what are known as P450 enzymes. Lycopene (found in tomatoes), beta-carotene (found in cantaloupes), anthocyanins (found in dark berries such as black currants, blueberries and cherries) and limonenes (found in citrus fruits) are all stress-fighting compounds. Including a sufficient number of fruits and vegetables (eight to 10 palm-sized portions – about a half-cup each) in your daily diet will provide you with a protective shield against physical, chemical and environmental stress.

Healthy fats. Omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory effects that can fight the ravages of stress and increase the body’s resistance to health challenges of many kinds. Omega-3 fats can also help counter stress’s tendency to trigger or amplify depression. In The Natural Way to Beat Depression (Hoder Mobius, 2004), authors Hilary Boyd and Basant Puri assert that in a “vulnerable” person, low levels of EPA, a fatty acid found in fish oils, “might trigger a depressive episode.” Healthy omega-3 fats are found in oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, and in some fresh nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, flax and pumpkin seeds. You can also buy omega-3- enriched eggs, breads, oil supplements and other foods.

Soothing Strategies

When you’re under pressure, your body needs a lot of bang for its nutritional buck. This means eating the best-quality food you can find.

Eat fresh. Choose fresh foods instead of packaged versions whenever possible. Choose fresh soups over packet soups. Eat a banana mashed with yogurt or sliced berries instead of a prepared dessert.

Take time. Too often, and especially when under pressure and stress, we eat on the run, barely tasting what we shovel in our mouths. In the October 2004 New Scientist, Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, observed: “The average family spends a mere six-and-a-half minutes preparing the evening meal, down from the two-and-a-half hours required 50 years ago.” That doesn’t mean you have to spend 150 minutes on supper every night, but sitting down and enjoying the moment, eating with friends and family and taking time out to prepare nurturing food is essential to your sense of satisfaction. By giving your body time to anticipate a meal and sit down and enjoy it, you also give your body the cues and the time it needs to digest that meal. Eating slowly means you are less likely to overeat.

Be Kind. Never underestimate the psychological value of nurturing yourself. Especially under times of stress. When you eat, be aware that you are fueling yourself for the things that matter to you. You are preparing your body to repair and regenerate itself. If you find that you are angrily “eating at yourself” or eating without awareness, simply step back, take a breath and choose differently.

When the hurricane of stress looms on the horizon, adopt a positive attitude and stick to a healthy approach to food. Make eating well a self-sustaining priority. You’ll not only survive the stress, you might just thrive in spite of it.

A Gut Feeling

Not everyone copes with stress with emotional eating. Worry and pressure cause some people to lose their appetite – a reaction that has some physiological basis.

When you’re under duress, your body’s instinct is to conserve resources. Nonimportant functions are shut down, including the digestive tract. Essentially, your body reasons that the last thing you need in an emergency situation is to waste energy on digestion. (Depending on the time of day, nearly a quarter of your energy may be expended on digesting food.) Not surprisingly, however, this halt in digestion can lead to myriad problems, including reduced nutrient absorption at a time when you most need fuel.

This might also explain the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling that crops up in times of stress. Fears can be “gut wrenching,” and common stress-related complaints include irregularity and “spastic colon.” It pays to learn relaxation or behavioral techniques to limit such effects of stress. It doesn’t matter what you choose – yoga, tai chi, massage, cognitive therapy, meditation – as long as it works for you.

How to Eat When You’re Stressed Out

When life is fast and furious, or when you’re feeling melted down, it can be challenging to make nutrition a priority. Here are some tips to get you on the right track.

Make snack time break time:

Yes, you’re busy, but research into body rhythms suggests that by taking a few minutes to break and recharge every hour and a half or so, you can actually improve the steadiness of your energy levels (see “Energy Crisis“). So take a healthy snack away from the source of your stress and enjoy it while you chill, not while you multitask.

Ditch your “diet” mentality:

Obsessive concern and judgment about what you’re eating can create a huge mental or emotional drain, particularly during stressful times. Strive to fuel your body with good, healthy nutrients and plenty of pure water. Fuel like an athlete – toward strength and resilience. Instead of asking, “Is it on my diet?” Try asking: “Will this help me, or hurt me?” Then ask, “What might help me even more?”

Eat for the long haul:

There’s a tendency, under stress, to think, “I’ll just get through this all-nighter (hard week, tough year, challenging part of my career), and then I’ll start eating right.” This tends to backfire. Try eating for who you want to be, and how you want your life to be, starting now. You’ll be amazed at how powerfully your body responds.

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