Today, people are constantly trying to find ways to combat the mental stress that takes over, whether at work, while managing a house or even when dealing with everyday tasks.
Have you ever wondered how this stress affects our body?
Read on to understand what happens to our body when we’re stressed, and how even simple switches in your daily diet can go a long way in beating stress!
Stress and Our Body
Our mood is the most glaring example of how stress affects us – we’ve all experienced it.
Apart from that, stress also affects several other systems of our body, including the immune system, metabolism and hormones. 2
When the brain detects a threat, it creates a coordinated response that results in the production of stress hormones.
Chronic exposure to these stress hormones can actually alter the brain structures related to cognition and mental health.
Stress hormones also have a huge effect on other parts of the body. They give rise to two other main classes of stress hormones (or transmitters of nerve impulses, depending on how you look at it), namely glucocorticoids (GCs) and catecholamines (CAs).
These are good for us at certain levels, because they help us with our ‘fight or flight’ response, amongst other functions.
Chronic stress, however, creates an excess of them – which causes imbalances in our body.
Stress Hormones and Their Effects
What Are GCs?
GCs are natural hormones that reduce inflammation in the body. For example, cortisol, a type of GC, moves into cells and suppresses the proteins that go on to promote inflammation.
Considering chronic inflammation is an underlying cause of many lifestyle diseases, this does not sound like a bad thing. And it isn’t – in moderation.
But when in excess, the side effects outweigh the benefits.
Here’s what happens when there’s too much GC:3
1] Inflammation is how we fight infections and injury. When it’s reduced, we’re more prone to serious infections, and wound-healing is also slowed down.
2] GCs make cells in the liver produce more sugar, which creates energy (in order to deal with the cause of the stress). However, too much sugar in the blood can cause nerve damage and type II diabetes mellitus.
4] Cortisol blocks the absorption of vitamin D and calcium, causing bone problems like osteoporosis.4
5] Our muscles are also broken down to provide energy, which ends up reducing muscle mass. At the same time, the protein from our food – instead of being used as protein – is converted into energy to deal with the stress. This hampers the recovery of our muscles after we exercise, since they need amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
6] GCs also increase the cholesterol and free fatty acids in our blood, raising the risk of heart disease.
What Are CAs?
CAs are a group of stress hormones that orchestrate the entire fight-or-flight response.5 A famous example is adrenaline, which is often associated with thrill.
CAs work with GCs, to confer some effects:3
1] They make you sweat and make your hair stand, causing “goosebumps”.
2] They increase your heart rate and blood pressure. If these are constantly high due to chronic stress, the wear and tear of the heart and blood vessels can, over time, result in disorders such as stroke and heart attacks.
3] CAs ensure that blood and glucose are used by our brain, muscles and internal organs for survival. That’s why chronic stress makes blood circulation poor in parts of the body that aren’t essential for survival (examples: the skin and hair).
Over time, the overall stress response leads to changes in behaviour like sleep deprivation, overeating, drinking too much, smoking, lack of physical activity etc. that pose harmful effects of their own.
Stress and Our Diet
While we usually tend to ignore our diet when we’re stressed, what we don’t realise is that certain foods can actually help relieve the tension!
1] Fibre-rich foods:
Stress can cause your blood sugar to rise, but fibrous carbohydrates like whole grains won’t contribute to your blood sugar level. They also keep you full for longer, reducing the odds of “stress eating”.
If you’ve ever had a bad tummy during stressful times, it’s because the gut and brain comminicate more than we think! Increasing evidence suggests that when foods and supplements boost “good” bacteria in the gut, it affects the way people process emotional information, and may even have anti-anxiety effects.6, 7 Food rich in probiotics, like yogurt, may therefore help in stressful times. (Fibre also helps keep a healthy gut, which reiterates #1. )
3] Omega-3 fatty acids:
Some studies have shown that the effects of stress and anxiety are lower in people who supplement their diet with omega-3 fatty acids.8-11That’s probably because an omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a structural component of the brain, playing a significant role in its cognitive function.
4] Dark chocolate and Chilli Peppers:
Endorphins are natural painkillers of the body and also help maintain a good mood. Both cocoa and chilli peppers have compounds that help release endorphins. Also, studies have shown that cocoa can reduce your stress hormones, including cortisol. Cocoa’s antioxidants, called flavonoids, trigger the walls of our blood vessels to relax, which lowers blood pressure and improves circulation. Dark chocolate is also known to uplift moods and create a sense of euphoria.12
5] Vitamin B12, folate and vitamin D:
Found in eggs, fish and meats, vitamin B12 is required for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, playing a role in producing chemicals that affect our mood and other brain functions.13
Low levels of vitamin D are linked to depression and mood disorders; since the absorption of vitamin D is lowered by cortisol, we can try and compensate for the loss through our diet. 14
6] Protein-rich food:
Serotonin is a hormone that creates feelings of well-being and happiness. An amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in protein-containing foods, helps produce serotonin. Examples of these foods are nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, lentils, oats, beans, and eggs.15
7] Antioxidant-rich foods:
Stress seems to cause free-radical damage to our body – any of its effects on the body that we’ve mentioned could be responsible for this.16 A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, however, can help you fight this damage with their antioxidants.
Having said all this, try incorporating exercise and stress-relieving techniques into your daily routine as well; an active effort to reduce your stress levels is bound to result in a healthier, happier version of you!
1. Flier JS, et al. New England journal of medicine 1998, 338(3): 171-179.
2. Lupien SJ, et al. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2009, 10(6): 434-445.
3. von Bohlen und Halbach O, Dermietzel R. Neurotransmitters and Neuromodulators: Handbook of Receptors and Biological Effects. Wiley, 2006.
4. Patschan D, et al. Bone 2001, 29(6): 498-505.
5. McEwen BS. European Journal of Pharmacology 2008, 583(2–3): 174-185.
6. Schmidt K, et al. Psychopharmacology 2015, 232(10): 1793-1801.
7. Foster JA, McVey Neufeld K-A. Trends in Neurosciences 2013, 36(5): 305-312.
8. Delarue J, et al. Diabetes Metab 2003, 29(3): 289-295.
9. Delarue J, et al. Br J Nutr 2008, 99(5): 1041-1047.
10. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, et al. Brain Behav Immun 2011, 25(8): 1725-1734.
11. Martins JG. J Am Coll Nutr 2009, 28(5): 525-542.
12. Smith DF. Journal of Functional Foods 2013, 5(1): 10-15.
13. Coppen A, Bolander-Gouaille C. J Psychopharmacol 2005, 19(1): 59-65.
14. Bertone-Johnson ER. Nutrition reviews 2009, 67(8): 481-492.
15. Young SN. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN 2007, 32(6): 394-399.
16. Wang L, et al. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2007, 4(2): 195-202.