What is Stress?
Stress manifests in various ways within the body. Essentially, stress is your body’s response to a demand. Stress is an important part of life and it is how our body adapts, grows and becomes more resilient. Common sources of stress are outlined in Table 1. Short bursts of stress that are followed by longer periods of recovery, such as lifting heavy weights at the gym or relaxing in a sauna, are particularly beneficial. Stress is generally catabolic, causing tissues to ‘break down’. When you provide your body with adequate time and nutrients to recover after a stressful event, it will ‘build you back up’ stronger than you were before! Conversely, when your body is exposed to too much stress or chronic stress, there is no time for rest and your cells are literally stuck in an aroused, sympathetic state of “fight or flight”. This scenario is a common side-effect of modern living and if you fail to become aware of what is causing you stress, and how to prepare for and manage this stress, then your body will eventually burn out - inviting illness and disease into your life.
Consequences of Chronic Stress
Individuals will respond to stress in their own ways. Short-term stress responses include; sweating, twitching, crying, nausea, vomiting, itchiness, headache, cramps, diarrhoea, irritability and loss of concentration. Long-term responses to stress include; frequent infections and/or allergic reactions, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, neck and shoulder stiffness, back pain, repetitive injuries, insomnia, high blood pressure, food intolerances/sensitivities, excess weight gain or loss, hypothyroidism, ulcers, acne, infertility and cardiovascular accidents. As there are many potential causes for these responses, individuals should seek medical advice if they are suffering from or concerned about any of the conditions listed.
Figuring out what your sources of stress are and being able to classify them into positive and negative forms of stress is the first step to take before embarking on any diet or lifestyle change. Negative stressors must be addressed and managed before additional stress (even the healthy stress) is added. High intensity interval training, for example, is a form of healthy stress. However, if you’re already experiencing stress from work, a poor diet and inadequate sleep, then intense exercise may not be the best thing for you right now. Similarly, intermittent fasting is a form of healthy stress. However, if you are working 10-hour days and have an unmanaged food intolerance or sensitivity that is causing you grief, intermittent fasting could be too much for your body at this point. Team up with a savvy health professional who can help you identify, classify and manage the stress in your life. You might find that by simply addressing your stress, your body will sort everything else out on its own (i.e., healthy weight regulation, balanced hormones regulation, deep sleep, etc.).
Nutrition for Stress Management
So, once you’ve addressed the major sources of stress that are tearing you down, there’s a few nutritional strategies you can harness to help build yourself back up again. You might even find that a lack of compliance to one of the points listed below is a major source of stress in your life right now. If so, prioritise it as number one and get on top of it!
1. Identify and manage food sensitivities/intolerances
Food sensitivities or intolerances are extremely common and generally result from a so-called case of ‘leaky gut’. Leaky gut could be the cause or result of some form of stress or autoimmune condition whereby the gut lining is damaged, allowing harmful pathogens to bypass our defence system and have first-class access to our blood stream! Gut-rehabilitation is an extremely tricky process that takes a long time (but it’s well worth it!). To make sure you get it right the first time, find yourself an experienced health professional who can guide you through a validated protocol step-by-step. Generally, some form of dietary elimination will be required first (where you completely remove the suspected sources of aggravation). Then, you reintroduce specific foods in specific amounts, until you eventually discover your tolerance and design a diet that’s right for you.
2. Increase your magnesium intake Stress depletes the body of magnesium – an essential nutrient for the regulation of cell membranes, transport of calcium and sodium ions and metabolic reactions that allow our bodies to produce energy. Mental and physical stresses cause an increase in magnesium elimination from the body, and magnesium deficiency itself enhances the body’s response to stress . In addition, low levels of magnesium have been associated with many conditions and diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, migraines, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and heart disease . Magnesium-rich foods include; spinach, Swiss chard, avocado, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and yoghurt. If you have a suspected magnesium deficiency, you may benefit from complementing your dietary intake of magnesium with supplements, magnesium salts or magnesium oil. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for magnesium is 420 mg per day for men and 320 mg per day for women .
3. Reduce sugar Excess sugar is toxic to our cells, with the potential to cause tissue damage and systemic inflammation if the consumption of this sweet poison is abused. If nothing else, consider the damage that sugar is causing in your mouth. The bacteria in our mouths produce acid when given the opportunity to combine with sugar (from food and drink). Frequent and/or prolonged exposure to this acid causes our tooth enamel (or tooth armour) to break down – opening us up to dental cavities and tooth extractions [4, 5]! Whether it is the visit to the dentist that boils up angst within you or the physical damage caused to your mouth and body, excess sugar intake is certainly not recommended when it comes to reducing stress. A great way to get started today is by cutting your current sugar intake by half. Visit www.sugarbyhalf.com for easy food swaps and a sugar calculator.
4. Avoid inflammatory fats Our body uses dietary fatty acids to build and repair cell walls. A cell wall that is built with damaged, toxic fats is like a house built out of cardboard – you can almost guarantee that it’s going to blow down, catch on fire, degrade, or simply just fall over… Now, imagine this house is a cell in your body– what is the outcome of a cell that cannot withstand any form of stress? A damaged and/or inflamed cell (a source of stress itself) that can no longer perform its programmed physiological functions. This not only reduces your performance, it also makes you more prone to illness and disease. But what is a “damaged, toxic fat”? Any fat that has been damaged (or oxidised) by excessive heating and/or exposure to free radicals. Trans fats are a good example of damaged, toxic fats that we should all stay away from. However, other fats that many people perceive to be "healthy" are at risk of becoming damaged. Common fats that are most prone to damage are polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats describe fats that have many (poly = many) unsaturated chemical bonds. Unsaturated bonds (double bonds) are exposed binding sites that make the fat vulnerable to oxidation (damage). Polyunsaturated fats include; soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, and margarine spreads made from these oils. Fish, nuts and seeds also contain some polyunsaturated fat. The fact that the chemical structure of these fats makes them unstable, doesn’t mean you must avoid them. Our body requires an optimal balance of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats to thrive and survive. However, it is wise to avoid consuming polyunsaturated fats that have been processed in such a way that has damaged their chemical structure. You can do this by choosing polyunsaturated fats that are as close to their whole-food form as possible (e.g., fish, nuts and their oils). Another great strategy to implement immediately to reduce your intake of inflammatory fats is to say good-bye to deep-fried foods, if you haven’t already!
Once again, stress is an important part of life that is crucial for our body to adapt, grow and become more resilient. However, chronic stress is a recipe for disaster. The stresses in your life could be preventing you from reaching your health and well-being goals. No matter your chosen lifestyle, stress will always find a way to pop up. Learning how to acknowledge and address the stress as it enters and/or lingers in your life is an empowering skill. Consult an understanding health professional who can help you set up an effective management plan for identifying and managing stress.
By Jessica Turton Accredited Practising Dietitian
This article provides general information from the current scientific evidence base and clinical judgement of the author. It is designed for educational purposes only and should not be substituted for medical advice. The author recommends you seek personally tailored support from a qualified healthcare practitioner before undertaking any major lifestyle change.
 Tarasov EA, Blinov DV, Zimovina UV, Sandakova EA (2015) Magnesium deficiency and stress: Issues of their relationship, diagnostic tests, and approaches to therapy. Terapevticheskii arkhiv 87: 114-122
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 National Health and Medical Research Council (2014) Magnesium. Available from https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/magnesium
 Sheiham A, James WP (2014) A new understanding of the relationship between sugars, dental caries and fluoride use: implications for limits on sugars consumption. Public health nutrition 17: 2176-2184
 Moynihan PJ, Kelly SA (2014) Effect on caries of restricting sugars intake: systematic review to inform WHO guidelines. Journal of dental research 93: 8-18