How Does Eating Healthy Reduce Stress

The baby’s crying. Your secretary calls in sick. A car veers into your lane. You bounced a check. Traffic’s tied up for miles. You’re graduating from medical school. Your mother’s in the hospital. It’s snowing. Your divorce is final.

Q. What does each of these scenarios have in common?

A. If repeated, combined, and sustained, situations like these can produce enough stress to make you sick.

When Does Stress Do Damage?

Stress is simply the body’s response to a threat. Whether the stressful situation is physical (an impending car accident) or psychological (a down-sizing at your company), your body undergoes a dramatic reaction that readies you for “fight or flight” from the danger.

A flood of hormones courses through your system and enters the bloodstream. Your blood pressure rises. Proteins are converted to sugars to provide readily accessible energy. You may experience a surge of unusual strength.

This stress response was essential thousands of years ago, when a fast response to attack was the only guarantee of survival. These days, threats are slower and subtler, and rarely call for dramatic physical response. Problem is, our bodies never learned this. They still react . . . and react . . . and react again.

If stressful situations were rare, our bodies would be little the worse for wear. In today’s world, however, we’re all too frequently bombarded with situations that prompt repeated stress responses.

A string of stressful, albeit minor, problems can cause your body to build up a response that’s as dramatic as a reaction to a serious threat, leaving you feeling drained and exhausted. When minor stress repeats itself over time, the feeling of exhaustion can become chronic, and you could notice a variety of other disturbing symptoms as well.

Since Dr. Hans Selye first discovered the link between stress and disease in 1936, studies have proven its connection with a variety of symptoms. The conditions listed in the nearby box can be caused or aggravated by stress. Seek medical help—and be sure to give your physician a complete physical and emotional history—if you experience any of them.

 

The Ravages of Stress

All of the symptoms here could be related to excessive stress. They could also be the result of some other disorder. To rule out a medical problem, your first line of defense is always a visit to the doctor. Then, if stress turns out to be the culprit, consider the dietary additions and deletions summarized in the text.

 

The Toll Stress Takes

Certainly the physical stress of illness or injury results in increased nutrient needs. And, as you recover, your vitamin and mineral needs increase, too. However, on emotional stress the jury remains out.

Although some authorities say there’s still no conclusive evidence that stress increases your body’s need for nutrients, many others are convinced that stress does rob your body. When you undergo severe stress for prolonged periods, they contend, such nutrients as protein, calcium, vitamin C, potassium, zinc, and magnesium become depleted.

Additionally, since it’s likely that your body uses vitamin A, the B-complex vitamins, pantothenic acid, vitamin E, and linoleic acid during the stress response, nutritional advisors often recommend getting extra amounts to ease the ravages of stress.

Nutritionists Eberhard and Phyllis Krohausen argue that the release of certain chemicals during stress leads to the production of free radicals, the highly destructive compounds that can oxidize (burn) key molecules within the cells. Many experts now suspect that such free radicals are linked to the aging process and such diseases as cancer. Some studies now suggest that the vitamins known as “antioxidants,” which include vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, and B-complex, can help prevent or repair the damage these compounds cause.

Stress definitely does deplete protein. During stress, your body converts it to fuel at a prodigious rate (one recent study indicates that in a day of severe physical stress, the body converts as much protein as you get in four quarts of milk). It’s no surprise, therefore, that amino acids—protein’s building blocks—are often packaged as stress-relieving dietary supplements. However, there is still no scientific proof that these supplements can actually make a difference.

Stress also indisputably, if indirectly, erodes your nutrition when it causes or aggravates destructive or unhealthy behavior patterns (such as smoking, drinking, substance abuse, or eating disorders). Still, there is no known way to calculate the exact impact of stress on your nutritional status. And there is no general prescription for repairing the damage that stress can do.

The most that can be said with certainty is that if you undergo a period of severe, protracted stress, or have symptoms of a stress-related disorder, it makes sense to pay extra attention to the way you eat. This is a time when a well-balanced diet is more important than ever. And a well-balanced multivitamin—including the antioxidant group of nutrients: C, E, beta-carotene, and B-complex—might be something to consider as well.

 

“Life Change Unit” Ratings of Common Stressors

Exactly how much stress are you under? Any change means stress; and the more profound the change, the greater its impact. Use the ratings below to gauge the cumulative effect of the readjustments you’re currently experiencing in your life. Note that a sudden burst of relatively minor events can easily cause as much stress as a major loss or disaster.

Stressful event LCU
Child leaving for college 28
Major change in eating habits 29
Vacation 29
Job promotion 31
Major change in sleeping habits 31
New romantic relationship 32
Breaking up 35
Troubles with co-workers 35
Changing jobs 38
Major change in living conditions 39
Major purchase 39
Troubles with boss 39
Major dental work 40
Injury or illness that hospitalized you or
kept you in bed a week or more
42
Marital reconciliation 42
Accident 44
Marriage 50
Major change in health or behavior of family member 52
Miscarriage or abortion 53
Marital separation 56
Job demotion 57
Loan or mortgage foreclosure 57
Decreased income 60
Pregnancy 60
Divorce 62
Death of brother or sister 64
Getting fired 64
Death of parent 66
Death of spouse or child 105

 

How Your Diet Can Contribute to Stress

A healthy diet is often the first casualty of severe stress. The nagging feeling of, “so much to do, so little time,” can send you racing from one thing to another without a relaxed, well-balanced meal. It seems like a small sacrifice—but the real sacrifice can be your health.

You can actually intensify the level of emotional stress you experience by eating incorrectly. If you stop eating or eat less, you won’t fulfill energy demands or meet nutrient requirements. And if you eat everything in sight, you’ll gain weight, which for many people is in itself a source of stress.

The worst possible diet plan for those under stress is no plan at all. When you have difficult times, it’s easy to skip meals, eat junk food, and fill up on sweet or salty snacks. But in times of stress dietary vigilance is more important than ever, because adding a bad diet to your other problems is a prescription for disaster.

Any of the following routines is taboo—and can have serious health consequences—for anyone under prolonged stress:

Crash diets
Extreme overeating
Skipping breakfast (or any meal)
Sugary breakfast pastries and donuts, in place of meals
Any diet that doesn’t deliver minimum Recommended Daily Allowances
Excessive alcohol consumption

A Note about Cadmium

Cadmium is a heavy metal that enters the food chain via sewage sludge that is converted to fertilizer by agricultural companies. Cadmium has been found in high concentrations in tobacco and lettuce.

During the 1980’s, researchers found that rats on high-cadmium diets displayed increased anxiety and an inability to cope with stress. And given a choice between water and water laced with alcohol, cadmium-fed rats preferred the latter, while cadmium-free rats chose pure water every time. When placed in stressful situations, the cadmium-fed rats drank twice as much alcohol as they did in non-stressful situations.

In 1992, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reduced by 95 percent the permissible exposure limit for cadmium, which has been linked to lung cancer and kidney disease. Vitamin E has been found to reduce cadmium-induced biochemical reactions in experiments on rats. The researchers concluded that vitamin E’s antioxidant properties might help protect against oxidative damage caused by cadmium.

 

Some Facts About Caffeine

Caffeine’s action occurs from 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion

200 milligrams of caffeine
(about 2 cups of coffee) can:
Increase alertness and reduce fatigue
Temporarily increase heartbeat and blood pressure
Interfere with sleep
Increase flow of urine
300-1,000 milligrams of caffeine
(3 to 10 cups of coffee) can cause:
Insomnia
Shaking and nervousness
Irregular heartbeats
Increased feelings of anxiety
Caffeine Counts in Common Sources
Product Caffeine (in milligrams)
Brewed coffee, 1 cup 50-150
Instant coffee, 1 cup 30-120
Sweetened coffee mix, 1 cup 40-80
Decaffinated coffee, 1 cup 2-8
Brewed tea, 1 cup 20-100
Instant tea, 1 cup 30-70

For caffeine content of other foods, beverages, and medications, see the box on “Changes to Make, When You’re Pregnant.”

 

Watch Out for Caffeine

It seems only logical that people already overstimulated by stress should avoid the extra stimulation of caffeine. In a study conducted at Duke University, the blood pressure of men who consumed caffeine prior to doing math problems rose 20 percent, and their adrenaline levels escalated 160 percent. Men in the control group, who thought they might be getting caffeine but actually didn’t, experienced increases of just 10 and 40 percent, respectively.

For most people, caffeine in moderation (2 or 3 cups of coffee a day) seems perfectly harmless. And some people may even experience beneficial feelings.

Studies conducted at M.I.T. showed that caffeine improves performance; those given caffeine demonstrated increased reaction speed, better concentration, and greater accuracy than those given caffeine-free substitutes. Other research suggests that caffeine may increase athletic endurance.

But many people are caffeine-sensitive and can feel nervous, shaky, or “overstimulated” after drinking just 1 cup of coffee. Many people avoid caffeine at all costs from late afternoon on, as it interferes with their sleep. (If insomnia troubles you, never drink coffee after 4:00 PM.) In short, some people find that caffeine is essential as a morning eye-opener and for maintaining a “clear” head; others are affected negatively. Think twice about your caffeine intake if your blood pressure is already elevated. And if caffeine bothers you—don’t use it.

Should You Consider a Supplement?

If the claims of diet supplement manufacturers were true, no one would ever have to suffer the ill effects of stress. Health food and nutrition shops are jammed with products claiming to cure, prevent, or repair the ravages of stress. There are stress vitamin combinations, herbal preparations, and amino acid concoctions. In traditional drugstores, several over-the-counter preparations promise stress relief.

There may be valid reasons to take some of these supplements. But you have to remember that none of them can banish the sourceof stress from your life. A supplement might improve your health, but it won’t diminish your problem.

Meals in a Can

When stress is particularly severe and unremitting for a period of time, you must take special action. Perhaps a family member has a chronic or life-threatening illness, or you’re the new mother of twins or triplets. Maybe you’re engaged in a protracted legal battle or you’re renovating your house from top to bottom. At times like these, it’s easy to skip meals and ignore your own health and nutrition.

If you’re going through this kind of stress, make the time to check with your doctor. Be certain to explain your circumstances and ask about recommended stress therapies. Seeking the advice of a support group or a counselor could be especially helpful at a time like this.

If you’re skipping meals, eating on the run, or are too upset to eat, this is also the moment to consider enriching your diet with a well-balanced dietary supplement. Many “meal-in-a-can” or powdered products contain a complete day’s supply of nutrients. It’s far better to down a healthy shake than to skip a meal or grab a fast-food burger.

When selecting a supplement, read the label carefully to be sure it’s well-balanced and doesn’t contain any harmful or unnecessary additives. Ask the retailer about the taste, too—this isn’t the time for anything that isn’t pleasantly palatable. Does it need to be mixed, or can you drink it straight from the can? Can it be mixed with milk? With fruit juice? Can you add flavor and nutrition-boosting ingredients? Follow package directions carefully, add healthy snacks, and resume a regular diet as soon as you can.

 

Fight or Flight

Faced by a threat, your body responds with a complex cascade of chemicals. The hypothalamus, alerted by the brain, pumps out a specialized hormone that ultimately prompts the two adrenal glands (perched atop the kidneys) to release the energizing hormone known as adrenaline. The result—faster pulse, higher blood pressure, sharpened awareness—is the “fight or flight” response we call stress.

 

Vitamin Supplements

In spite of everything we’re learning about the physical toll of stress, researchers have failed to find any stress-relieving benefit in extra doses of vitamins and minerals. However, when you’re too distracted to eat a well-balanced diet, stress can prevent you from getting your Recommended Daily Allowances of necessary nutrients. This can lead to nutrient insufficiencies, which are unhealthy and can amplify the harmful effects of stress. Taking a well-balanced vitamin supplement insures that your daily needs will be adequately met even if your diet falls below par.

Megadosing on vitamins to relieve the symptoms of stress is not only unnecessary, say the experts, it’s probably unhealthy, too. When nutrients are taken in isolation or in very high amounts, the effects of other equally valuable nutrients can be altered or even negated. Here are just two examples of the way that increasing a single nutrient can backfire:

Taking more than 1,000 milligrams per day of vitamin C can decrease the availability of copper and selenium.
When iron and copper are taken together, they compete for absorption. Copper is absorbed; iron is not and accumulates in the colon. Bacteria thrive on the iron, resulting in water and mineral loss.

Amino Acid Supplements

In her book, Managing Your Mind & Mood Through Food, M.I.T. researcher Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., notes that amino acids—the building blocks of protein—are prime ingredients of natural mood-modifying chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. She contends that one amino acid, tyrosine, stimulates the production of “alertness” chemicals, while another, tryptophan, increases levels of serotonin, a calming chemical.

But before you rush out to buy amino acid diet supplements, remember that Dr. Wurtman and many other nutritional experts agree that the best sources of amino acids are the foods you eat. She cautions, as do others, against buying supplements for several reasons:

No safe levels have been established for amino acids; large doses could lead to harmful imbalances.
Synthetic tryptophan is still not approved for use in diet supplements. Tryptophan is harmless when obtained naturally from foods such as dairy products and turkey.
Excessive amounts of concentrated tryptophan can cause drowsiness or dizziness.
Excessive amounts of concentrated tyrosine can affect blood pressure.

In the 1980’s a tryptophan supplement was implicated in an outbreak of a rare, painful, and debilitating blood disease which struck more than 1,000 people—and killed over 30. The culprit ultimately proved to be impurities associated with processing, rather than tryptophan itself; but the potential for disaster still lurks in any dietary supplement. Exotic ingredients come to market daily, it seems, all making extravagant, seductive claims—with stress relief among the most prominent. No one can be sure that these unfamiliar substances are safe and effective. In fact, you can’t even be certain that a product contains what it claims. Your safest course when approaching any kind of supplement is to stick with well-known manufacturers and recognized, established brands—though even this confers no guarantee of efficacy.

Stress-Beating Diet Plans

The best stress-fighting diet plan is one that ensures general good nutrition and health—one that builds a “bank account” of nutrients to deal with the damage of stress. Aim for a high-carbohydrate, low-fat mixture of foods like that in the USDA’s Food Pyramid, or go even further with a Mediterranean-style diet that virtually eliminates red meat (see “What’s Really Important in Nutrition?” for details).

Many experts now recommend getting two-thirds or more of your daily calories from complex carbohydrates found in grains, vegetables, and fruit. A case in point: the “Optimum Diet For Optimum Health,” a proposal based in part on a mid-1980’s study of 6,500 people in 65 counties across China. One of the findings of the study, published in 1990 as Diet, Lifestyle and Mortality in China,was the fact that the closer a specific region’s diet came to the Western model—high in animal protein and fat, low in fiber—the more people suffered from the “diseases of affluence:” coronary heart disease, various cancers, leukemias, and diabetes. The healthiest diets in the study, on the other hand, included minimal amounts of meat and dairy products, boasting overall percentages like these:

Food Percentage of Diet
Grains, beans, seeds, nuts 50%
Vegetables 30%
Fruits 10%
Dairy Products 6%
Protein (meat, fish, poultry) 4%
Food Group Percentage of Diet
Complex carbohydrates 70 – 75%
Fats 15 – 20%
Protein 10%

 

Coping With Stress

Eliminating the source of your stress is, of course, the best way of coping. Often that’s simply impossible, however. If you can’t head off stress at the source, investigate ways of controlling it. Try learning a stress management technique such as relaxation exercises, yoga, or meditation. Biofeedback has shown excellent results in moderating reactions to seriously stressful conditions. One of the most effective of all stress-fighters is regular exercise, which has the added benefit of providing a host of other healthy advantages as well (see “Exercise: The Other Half of Weight Control”).

Remember that you don’t have to suffer through a difficult time alone, and so doing may be harmful to your health. When troubles threaten to overwhelm you, don’t hesitate to consult a good mental health professional or join a support group. Sharing your problems with others can be the start of true stress relief.

 

Three Squares A Day?

Some experts suggest that eating enough of the right foods isn’t sufficient to alleviate the symptoms of stress. When you eat, and how you combine food, may be just as important in counteracting the effects of stress. For example, rather than eating three large meals a day, it’s probably better to eat three smaller meals, supplemented by one or two “power snacks,” says nutritionist Joan Horbiak.

This eating strategy is said to be a good stress fighter because it keeps blood sugar at a constant level. And when you’re under severe stress, your digestion may be upset to the point where eating a larger meal produces discomfort. Power snacks are complex carbohydrates like bagels, cereals, and fruits. Try low-fat muffins or fig bars—easy to find and eat on the run. Pop a container of low-fat yogurt in the freezer for a mid-afternoon treat. Here are a few good menu ideas for stressful times, drawn from nutritionist Wurtman’s book, Managing Your Mind & Mood Through Food. These combinations are designed to provide you with the energy you need to stand up to stress.

Best breakfasts


1 serving fresh fruit
1 egg, cooked without fat
2 slices whole wheat toast with 2 tablespoons fruit preserves

or

6 ounces fruit juice
1-1/2 cups high fiber cold cereal
1/2 cup berries or 1/2 sliced banana
1/2 cup low-fat milk

or

6 ounces fruit juice
8 ounces low-fat yogurt (plain, lemon, vanilla)
1/2 cup granola, mixed with 2 tablespoons raisins, chopped dates or apricots

Mid-morning snacks


4 to 6 ounces orange juice
2 rice cakes
1 slice low-fat cheese

or

8 ounces low-fat chocolate milk (skim or fat-free )
1 slice raisin bread
2 teaspoons cottage cheese

or

1 ounce turkey or tuna
1 slice bread or 3-inch pita
1 carrot

Lunch


3 ounces of low-fat protein (tuna, lean roast beef, skinless poultry, etc.)
2 slices whole grain bread (or 1 pita, bagel, or roll)
1 salad of lettuce, broccoli, carrots, etc., with 2 tablespoons low-calorie dressing
1 piece of fruit or cup of fruit salad

Mid-afternoon snacks


5 graham crackers or
15 Ritz crackers or
15 jelly beans or
1 English, bran, or corn muffin with 1 teaspoon jelly or
1-1/2 cups Cheerios without milk

Dinner


4-6 ounces lean protein (broiled fish, skinless, boneless poultry, lean beef)
1 baked/steamed potato (or 3/4 cup pasta, rice, or other grain)
2 servings raw, steamed, or microwaved vegetables
1 serving fruit

 

Where to Get Expert Advice

Start by asking your doctor. He or she may refer you to a registered dietitian (RD), or may be part of a medical group that has an RD on staff. There are 63,000 RDs across the country. Each has gone through an approved course of study and testing. Each is required to keep his or her credentials—and knowledge—up to date.

To locate a registered dietitian in your area, or to get more information, call the American Dietetic Association’s Hotline at 1-800-366-1655. Up-to-the-minute recorded information is available, as are free brochures. RDs are also listed in the Yellow Pages under “Dietitians.” Nutritionists may or may not be licensed nutritional experts; check credentials before you become a client.

 

Foods to Emphasize

When you’re undergoing a stressful time, choose foods that make few demands on your body yet provide the energizing nutrients you need. The following are especially good choices. They digest quickly and easily, are dense in essential nutrients and/or fiber; leave little residue for the liver to detoxify, and don’t cause toxic buildup in the bowel and vascular systems: apples, apricots, bananas, beets and beet greens, buckwheat, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, cauliflower, celery, chard (Swiss), dates, grapefruit, grapes, kale, millet, nectarines, oranges, pears, peas, pineapple, potatoes, rutabaga, sprouts, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

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