April 6, 2013
If we've been anywhere near a television, newspaper, radio or town crier in the past decade, most of us know at least a little bit about stress.
It's that modern-day plague that can play a contributing role in everything from deadly heart disease, to insomnia, headaches, low sex drive, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and isolation, among other conditions, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Don't get me wrong, we need a little bit of stress in our lives. It's the stress of having guests over that motivates me to get some of that heavy cleaning done. It's the stress of knowing I have to meet my deadlines that gets a newspaper out on local doorsteps every day (and allows me to collect a paycheck every month, thank you very much).
The fight-or-flight instinct that sent cavemen fleeing saber-tooth tigers helps give us motivation in the modern world, too. But sometimes stress runs rampant: A family member falls ill or dies. The workload piles up, demanding late nights (or in my case, early mornings). Heck, even getting sick is a physical stressor that can contribute to the four-car pile-up of too much all at once.
When that happens, it's all too common to derail intentions to eat a nutritious diet.
That happened to me last month. Through no fault of my own (OK, I could have gotten the flu shot), I got really, really sick right at the time of year when a flurry of deadlines descended on my head.
After a couple of days in bed with alternating fevers and chills, the worst body aches I can remember, and unspeakable nausea, I came back to work coughing, sniffling, and weak as a kitten to face those deadlines.
I had been doing really well before that: eating healthy food, exercising daily. But during the several weeks it takes to recover from this particularly nasty flu I didn't have the energy to do either.
The gym was a distant memory and for the first week food wasn't to be thought of, except the occasional soup or soda cracker.
When I finally did get my appetite back, I was still too tired to come home and cook and I was going to work too early to sit down to a good breakfast.
Like most people faced with too much work and not enough time, I survived on caffeine, doughnuts, and whatever I could find in the machine at work or the many drivethroughs around town. Refined flour and sugar, salt, red meat and plenty of fat to bind them together were far more regular parts of my diet than I would like to admit.
I know I'm not alone. At least a few of you out there know about bringing in pizza for a late-night work meeting, or putting doughnuts on the counter as reward for a particularly tough week.
The thing is, too much poor eating just adds to stress. Not only are we overworked, weak from being sick or lacking sleep from taking care of someone else who is, now we are nutritionally deprived, too.
I can tell you personally that I feel much more anxious and stressed out when I'm surviving on coffee and junk food than when I've had a bit of peanut butter (the weight loss miracle food) on a piece of celery or a slice of bread, along with an apple or banana and some raw vegetables, and a little green tea or just a healthy glass of water.
There's a reason for that, says Web M.D. Just like that junk food and caffeine can contribute to the effects of stress, so can healthful food help alleviate those symptoms. Comfort foods like warm oatmeal, for example, can boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. If you don't like oatmeal, try a piece of whole wheat toast (who doesn't like toast?) for a similar effect. These can also help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Try an orange to get a supply of vitamin C, which is believed to curb stress hormones. A nice spinach salad can boost magnesium levels, which may help reduce that anxious, shaky feeling that comes on with stress.
The Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon, flaxseed and walnuts, for example, can prevent surges of stress hormones and may guard against heart disease and mood disorders.
Avocados can substitute in for other high-fat treats and provide necessary potassium, another stress fighter.
Raw vegetables, which have a host of micronutrients, may also help ease stress in a mechanical way - munching on crunchy vegetables can help release a clenched jaw and reduce neck tension. A light snack before bedtime can also help release serotonin at bedtime, helping your sleep better.
And don't forget the benefits of a nice glass of warm milk (I like vanilla or hazelnut flavoring when I indulge). Research shows that calcium eases mood swings linked to PMS. In other words, eating more nutritious foods, particularly when you try to observe regular meal times (even if you are working through them) can help lessen the symptoms of stress and the tendencies to overeat as a result. Plus, you end up feeling just a bit better about life when you've done something you know is good for you.
A couple of other key tools in the stress-combatting bag of tricks are exercise and relaxation. Not only do they release those nice endorphins that make you feel better about the world as a whole, they also provide a physical release to our fight-or-flight response to stress.
You know what I mean. Cave men got stressed when the saber-tooth tiger chased them or the volcano erupted. The stress chemicals gave them the energy and instinct to run away, and were used up in the process.
I know I can face the world a lot more calmly after a good 45 minutes of exercise in the morning - even if I have to get up earlier to do it.
I also try to carve out at least 10 solid minutes for a soak in the hot tub, a little meditation or just to watch the sun rise. These are restorative and pampering acts that don't take a huge amount of time.
Unfortunately, we've gotten some weird ideas into our heads about pampering ourselves. How can we possibly do that if there's an unfinished project on our desks or a baby crying in the other room?
But how are you possibly going to meet the deadlines or take care of the family without keeling over yourself if you don't take care of yourself first?
You can only burn that two-ended candle for so long until it begins to take a toll.
Online: Diet for Stress management