The Stress Belly
As a Nutritionist you expect that I deal mostly with recommending food and dietary protocols to people, and I do however many of the common complaints I deal with such as lack of energy, weight gain/inability to lose weight and digestive concerns have a lot to do with stress and how stress impacts the body
How Stress Impacts the Body
We all experience stress in different ways and there are many different types of stress be it physical, mental or emotional. This can be from a number of causes including chronic or acute infection, illness, disease, a stressful emotional event, low calorie diets and/or excessive exercise. Either way the body reacts in the exact same way.
When we are under stress the body reacts as if it’s being chased by a tiger and releases the hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland to give the body energy to either stay and fight the tiger or flee. You may often hear it referred to as “Fight or Flight” mode. Excessive levels of cortisol may eventually contribute to an imbalance in adrenal gland function and contribute to fatigue, digestive discomfort, weight gain, suppressed immune system and a general feeling of ill health.
Stress slows down digestion - Digestion and bowel movements can change when we are stressed. The body doesn’t care that you have just had your dinner its focused on getting away from the tiger and so digestion can become impaired and we don’t absorb nutrients as effectively. When digestion slows down it can cause constipation, diarrhoea and an imbalance in gut bacteria necessary for optimum health.
Stress suppresses our immune system - Cortisol helps to regulate the immune system. Immune disorders such as chronic infections, allergies and intolerances or inflammatory conditions (diagnosed or undiagnosed) can contribute to excessive production of cortisol therefore causing our adrenals to become overworked suppressing our immune system making us more susceptible to colds and illnesses and/or longer recovery periods.
Stress increases cravings and weight gain - Cortisol is produced in response to low blood sugar. A blood sugar imbalance is triggered by the intake of refined carbohydrates or sugar. This breaks down in our digestive system into the molecule glucose. Glucose is absorbed into the blood stream quite quickly giving us a surge in blood sugar. We know what goes up must come down and it’s around this time we experience the 2pm slump. It can also lead to fatigue, cravings, weight gain and/or the inability to lose weight. We often are so low in energy and require stimulants and or sugary foods to get through the day and continue to spike this and drain our adrenals further.
Stress increases the need for stimulants - caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs all raise cortisol levels however many of us are so fatigued because of this excess cortisol or blood sugar imbalance that we are relying on these stimulants to get us through the day. Be assured there are things you can do to support this.
Here are 6 of my top dietary suggestions you can implement to reduce the effect of stress and rejuvenate the body:
Avoid skipping meals! Small, regular meals eaten every 3 or 4 hours, may help to maintain energy levels and mood. When you eat is as important as what you eat - eat within 1 hour of rising to restore blood sugar levels lowered during sleep, have an early lunch, snack in the afternoon, have an early evening meal and a small snack before bed. This is another way to keep blood sugar levels steady all day.
Combine a fat / protein with your carbohydrate – This will slow down the release of glucose and balance blood sugar and provide a more sustainable energy. Fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, oily fish and high quality vegetable and seed oils are good examples. Good lean sources of protein like poultry, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, lean meat and complex carbohydrates like sweet potato, leafy vegetables and whole grains such as brown rice, oats and quinoa are some good examples.
Eat a Rainbow diet - Eat the whole vegetable where possible, as the fibre in the skin will also help to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Vegetables provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and high amounts of fibre. Together with the protein, fat and whole grain carbohydrates, you will have the B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc and magnesium that are essential to adrenal support. Vegetables are best eaten raw or lightly cooked.
Avoid foods containing refined carbohydrates (“white” foods) and sugary snacks - These break down and release glucose too quickly, giving you a immediate high but a subsequent drop in blood sugar placing further stress on the adrenal glands.
Try not to eat fruit on its own, avoid it first thing in the morning. Choose less sugary fruits such as apples, pears and berries over bananas, raisins, figs, oranges and grapefruit. These are best eaten with some protein like natural greek yogurt.
Take time to eat your food. Aim to sit down for even 10 minutes and focus solely on your meal. Chew! This allows for the gastric juices to stimulate and support adequate digestion
Written by Elysia Doody, Functional Nutritionist of Chrysalis Nutrition and Wellness. Elysia is a Functional Nutritionist helping people improve their health and wellness through dietary and lifestyle changes. For more details on what Elysia does you can check her out here: