Hippocrates was right on the money, even some 2,400 years ago. I try to remember this ageless wisdom when making everyday food choices; however, the truth is that when under stress all bets are off. We’ve all been there. You’re working extra hours at work to finish a project or get report cards done, and the thought of going home and cooking a meal exhausts you even more, so you go through the drive-through at McDonald’s. You’re having relationship difficulties, so dinner consists of a box of cookies or a bag of chips. Or, maybe you’re caring for a sick family member, and you forget to eat altogether. Of course this is not the “medicine” about which Hippocrates spoke. Food often becomes a relaxation technique to quell our anxiety, comfort us, and/or increase our emotional pleasure when what we really need are nutrient dense foods (aka “medicine”) to help protect our bodies from the stress itself. Instead, poor dietary choices can actually intensify that stress and affect our moods, adults and kids alike.
A few unbalanced meals from time to time are probably not going to do irreversible damage to most of us. But, let’s be honest: the typical American diet is nothing to brag about to begin with. We ingest way too much fat and sugar, bleached flour, salt and caffeine. What are the consequences in the context of stress?
Fat: A high-fat diet is thought to increase the risk in illness since foods low in fat are known to stimulate the immune system.
Sugars and bleached flour: White sugar and flour require extra vitamin B-complex to be metabolized, so an overabundance of simple sugars tends to deplete our stockpile of these necessary vitamins (as well as others) and, in turn, affects the proper functioning of our central nervous system. A lack of B-vitamins may also result in anxiety, fatigue and irritability. Fluctuations in blood glucose levels due to excessive intake of simple sugars may also contribute to that fatigue and irritability as well as headaches. Processed sugars and flour are also known to increase physiological responses that keep stress levels elevated.
Salt: The result of too much sodium is water retention. As the volume of water increases, so does blood pressure. Additionally, salt is also known to increase physiological responses that keep stress levels elevated.
Caffeine: This stimulant is a diuretic that also depletes our mineral stores of calcium and magnesium. Also significant, caffeine reaches the brain very quickly and impacts the sympathetic nervous system resulting in the release of stress hormones and a heightened state of arousal.
Eating this type of diet already puts our bodies in a state of imbalance. That imbalance compromises our immune system, the physiological system most adversely impacted by poor nutrition, which in turn makes us more susceptible to illness and disease—and, that’s before you add in acute and chronic stressors.
So, what happens when we are under stress? In a nutshell, stress compromises our digestion, depletes us of necessary nutrients and increases the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When our brains receive stimuli, we immediately classify them as threats or non-threats. If we interpret a threat, whether it is actual or perceived, our fight or flight system kicks in. In this intensified state, our very wise bodies divert necessary resources (oxygen-rich blood) away from bodily processes that are not considered critical so that we have the ability to fight or flee. The digestion, absorption, metabolism and elimination of nutrients are considered less essential processes during times of stress as the body is geared up to survive. As such, we are deprived of necessary nutrients.
And, the stress to which I am referring is not limited to just “acute” stressors: accidents, arguments, death, getting fired, etc. The body responds to all stressors the same way, even if they are more hassles than anything else: losing your keys, getting cut off in traffic, running late, having to listen to the neighbor’s loud music, etc. Over time, these hassles can become chronic stressors. According to Seaward (2015):
Stated simply, when under stress, we are extremely vulnerable to nutritional deficiency which can lead to illness and disease. Here are some suggestions to strengthen your immune system:
- eat lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs which contain antioxidants (selenium, beta-carotene and vitamins C & E) which fight the damage of free radicals as well as fiber which helps clean the colon of toxic materials
- drink lots of fresh, filtered water to aid in the elimination of toxins and metabolic by-products
- decrease consumption of fast foods and other processed foods to avoid additives and preservatives that are used to extend shelf life (think Twinkies!)
- consume organic produce when possible to avoid pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers as many are carcinogenic; organic meats and dairy will help reduce your ingestion of antibiotics and hormones, but watch your intake of these products as they contain saturated fats
- eat more fish, flaxseed and vegetable oils as they contain necessary omega-3’s and 6’s
- avoid/limit baked and boxed goodies as they contain partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
- incorporate foods that represent all the colors of the rainbow
- decrease consumption of high fructose corn syrup and other simple sugars to minimize wear and tear on your pancreas and to “starve” cancerous tumors (they appear to like sugar)
- avoid aspartame, Nutrasweet and MSG, which are believed to inhibit brain function, as well as GMOs or Frankenfoods which are known to promote allergies
These suggestions are for you and your kids; they need you to model good habits. With all the standardized tests, final projects, papers and exams at this time of the year, many parents know all too well the amount of stress that their children are under. While it may be easier to rely on less nutritious foods due to time constraints or tempting to reward hard work with lots of treats, try to keep in mind the benefits of sound nutrition. And, on that note, I’ll leave you with a few kid-friendly food/drink suggestions that are thought to reduce the body’s stress response and promote relaxation: chamomile tea, yogurt, turkey, eggs, flaxseeds, and of course, lots of water.
Program Coordinator, School Wellness