How, when, and what we eat tells a lot about who we are. It also says a lot about how well we handle our stress reaction. Food can help or hurt our coping abilities and thus make a difference in how well we respond to stressors.
Food intake is one of the critical factors ensuring adequate growth and development in all species. Just ask my puppy dog where food ranks on his daily list of priorities! In particular, brain development is sensitive to specific nutrient intake such as proteins and fats, which are important for cell membrane formation and myelinization.
A surprising amount of the stress we may experience on a daily basis can be caused by the chemicals we consume in our food. By eating, drinking or inhaling certain substances we can put our bodies under elevated chemical stress. Similarly, if we are eating an unbalanced diet we may be stressing our bodies by depriving them of essential nutrients.
Eating too much of certain high-calorie foods for a long period is a leading cause of obesity. How much food is consumed as a stress reliever? Gaining too much weight puts our heart and lungs under stress, overloads our organs and reduces stamina. It may also significantly shorten our lives.
Stress reactions are a pervasive factor in everyday life that can critically affect our development and functioning. Severe and prolonged exposure to stressors can have a negative effect on our balance mechanisms.
Let’s look at some of the most important effects of food on our psychological state right after the jump.
• An increased activity of serotonergic neurons in the brain is a well-known consequence of stress. An increase in brain tryptophan levels on the order of that produced by eating a carbohydrate-rich/protein-poor meal causes parallel increases in the amounts of serotonin released into synapses. Deficiencies in serotonin availability have been linked to depression, anxiety, irregular appetite, aggression and pain sensation.
• The desire to eat is generally suppressed during stress activation, due to the anorectic effects of the corticotrophin releasing hormone. Appetite is increased during recovery from stress, due to the appetite stimulating effects of residual cortisol. A disruption of this cycle of suppression and stimulation can lead to over- or under-nutrition in stressful situations.
• Night eating syndrome has been found to occur during periods of high stress and is associated with poor results at attempts to lose weight and disturbances in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
• Dietary antioxidants present in fruits and vegetables may improve cognitive function, our ability to think clearly.
Certain foods have a particular impact on brain activities and are therefore known as brain foods. The most important ones are:
Caffeine Caffeine is a stimulant. One of the most probable reasons we drink it is to raise our level of arousal (i.e. stress activation). If we are drinking many (over 6) cups of coffee a day, we may reduce stress simply by switching to good decaffeinated coffee at least for a portion of our daily intake.
Alcohol In small amounts, alcohol can help our body to relax. In larger amounts, it does increase stress as it can disrupt sleep (and cause hangovers!). In large amounts over a long term, alcohol is well-known to severely damage the brain, as well as the rest of the body.
Nicotine While in the very short term nicotine can cause relaxation, its toxic effects raise the heart rate and stress the body. In taking the pulse of smokers before and after a cigarette this difference in heart rate is easy to notice. After the initial period of giving up smoking, most ex-smokers report feeling much more relaxed on a general basis.
Sugar Sugar-rich foods raise energy in the short term. The problem with frequent sugar intake is that the body copes with high levels of sugar by secreting insulin, which reduces the amount of sugar in the blood stream. However, insulin can persist and continue acting after it has normalized levels of blood sugar. The constant presence of insulin in the body will actually cause energy levels to decrease.
Carbohydrates Carb intake ensures adequate short-term energy supply, but has important effects on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in regulating stress responsiveness. Carbohydrates (and fats) have an effect on other brain-related functions such as pain modulation, neuropeptide and neurotransmitters release, and some aspects related to cognitive functions, our thinking brain.
Fats In moderation, fats are essential to the body. However, one should avoid any foods that contain high volumes of saturated fats and especially trans fats. These are the ‘bad’ fats that can lead to obesity, heart conditions and cancer. Due partially to an increase in the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, people reacting to a stressor tend to crave foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
Water With busy lives, it is easy to forget to drink water. In fact, a large number of people drink no water and get their liquid intake only from the water contained in soda or coffee. Although there is little scientific evidence to support the mandate of eight glasses per day, it is beyond dispute that a body without sufficient water hydration functions less efficiently.
Food Stress Hazards
No Food Severely stressed people tend to skip meals. This may be part of the natural appetite suppression that takes place during the stress reaction. As such, it is not necessarily bad—for a time. However, if we routinely rush out of the house without a healthy breakfast, or often realize we’re starving in the late afternoon because there just was not enough time for lunch, that’s when the naturalness of appetite suppression has been exceeded.
Too Much Food Cravings experienced under stress are not just imaginary—there is a biological basis to them. When a person experiences something stressful, the brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, and the body undergoes many changes as it prepares for physical activity, including the release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help mobilize carbohydrates and fat for quick energy. When the stress reaction is over, cortisol acts to increase appetite so the carbohydrates and fat that have been burned while fleeing or fighting can be replaced. Most often, people do not physically react to the stressor, so they do not need to replace any carbohydrates or fat because none was used. If we give in to cravings each time we are stressed, weight gain will most certainly occur because excess energy (carbohydrates and fat) is not used.
Indigestion This can result from eating in the middle of a stressful situation, as the digestive system is not relaxed. It also can be due to eating on the run, so it may be a better idea to always sit down to eat and eat more slowly, chewing food properly.
Blood Sugar Imbalances When we do not eat enough food, or do not eat healthy enough food (too little protein and healthy carbohydrates, or too much sugar) we can experience blood sugar fluctuations. These fluctuations can lead to mood swings, fatigue, poor concentration and other negative consequences in the short term, and greater health problems like hyperglycemia in the long run.
Caffeine Side Effects Too much caffeine can lead to poor concentration and decrease effectiveness, cause sleep disturbances, and increase levels of cortisol in the blood, as well as other negative side effects.
Poor Health Outcomes Poor nutrition can also lead to lowered immunity making us more susceptible to illnesses, both minor and major. As can be imagined, this can lead to other problems, and not just increased stress levels.