This month, the Mental Health Foundation will be hosting Mental Health Awareness Week between 10-16th May to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. Let's dig deeper into the role of nutrition and stress.
What has nutrition got to do with stress?
Stress is inbuilt into our system to enable us to run from danger. If we consider how we would have lived thousands of years ago, there was as reason for this.
Back when we humankind was more Caveman than businessman, danger was in the form of a predator e.g. tiger, lion. At a biological level this danger would stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the release of our stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. These are designed to shut off the systems that aren’t a priority: food, reproduction etc. whilst optimising those that enable us to RUN!
These days, whist our nervous system still functions in the same way, our danger looks a little bit different. Your stressors could be a particular meeting, a heavy workload, running around non-stop after family or the ongoing feeling of unease as we come out of Lockdown. Chronic stress can lead to our levels of stress hormones being released too much and all too often. This plays havoc with our internal balance, mental wellbeing and overall health.
Stress and Digestion
When we are stressed, our ability to digest food properly reduces. This can lead to problems such as heart burn and digestive discomfort such as wind and cramping. Long-term it can be a contributor to conditions such as gastric reflux, stomach ulcers and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
This is easy to brush off, but did you know our GUT (otherwise known as our gastro-intestinal tract) and brain are connected via the Vagus nerve? This means our digestive system can communicate directly with our brain and nervous system.
Stress and Absorption
Our intestinal walls are comprised of hundreds of thousands of cells. In fact, if you were to stretch them out flat, they would equate to around the size of a tennis court!! These cells go through a 72-hour lifecycle and their role is to release digestive enzymes and function as a barrier, allowing the nutrients we need to get into our bodies whilst also preventing undigested food and bacteria getting through.
Unfortunately, ongoing stress makes it difficult for these cells to be as healthy as can be to do their job. Intestinal permeability (often referred to as Leaky Gut Syndrome), is when the healthy cells in the intestines are compromised due to stress (be it from environmental sources such as medication, alcohol, gluten, pesticides and/or emotional stress). This can lead to gaps forming between these cells, allowing undigested food, toxins, and bacteria to pass through the gaps to the tissue underneath and eventually the bloodstream. Our immune system detects these as foreign invaders and launches an attack which often leads to food sensitivities and inflammatory conditions.
Finally, within our digestive system hosts thousands of good bacteria (think Yakult) which live symbiotically within us keeping us healthy and happy. Chronic stress easily leads to a depletion in these friendly folks allowing pathogenic bacteria to take over.
Stress and Blood Sugar Balance
The release of stress hormones sends our blood sugars soaring as our body releases the energy it needs to operate on high alert. Once the danger has passed, these blood sugars drop, leads to feelings of starvation, shakiness, and the dreaded hanger!
"You need something to eat! You go hunting. You find your prey. A biscuit. You pounce. Down in one! Sugars surge, spike and repeat".
This creates an endless cycle which can lead to feeling wired and even more stressed!
Some food for thought…
Often, it is as much about HOW you eat as WHAT you eat that can be a cause of upset.
Food should be enjoyed, savoured, appreciated! If you are stressed or on a tight schedule, it’s easy to scoff meals mindlessly which reduces our ability to digest food properly.
· It will down-regulate the signals your body gives that you are full causing you to eat more than you want or need
· Create poor diet choices in favour of convenience
· Your digestion starts in your mouth signalled by taste, smell, and sight. If you are shovelling down food, you chew less and your digestive juices (salivary amylase in this case) don’t get a chance to do their job.
Where possible, take time to sit and eat your meals away from screens or distraction. The term, ‘rest and digest’ has been coined for a reason.
There is so much that food can do to support our mental wellbeing and this post has literally touched upon the tip of the iceberg. To conclude here are 3 simple takeaways:
1. Eat your wholegrains! Refined sugar causes energy spikes shortly followed by an energy crash (think afternoon slump). Wholegrains: cereals, rice etc release energy more slowly plus they are rich in B-vitamins which are great to support stress control.
2. Dark leafy greens! Magnesium is a mineral our body requires for a plethora of jobs, particularly relaxation. Dark leafy greens (and dark chocolate) are both great sources of magnesium, so be sure to chuck a couple of handfuls of spinach or kale into a smoothie, salad or soup give you a boost.
3. Have a tea break! Tea (both green and black) are rich in the amino acid L-theanine which increases our happy and motivational hormones: serotonin and dopamine. A good excuse to take a break from the screen and stop for a cuppa!
Mental Health Awareness Week between 10-16th May with the theme this year being Nature – a good excuse to get outdoors if you ask us!