Feeling stressed can be perfectly normal. You may even notice that sometimes being stressed-out motivates you to focus on your work, yet at other times, you feel incredibly overwhelmed and can’t concentrate on anything. While stress affects everyone in different ways, there are two major types of stress: stress that’s beneficial and motivating — good stress or eustress — and stress that causes anxiety and even health problems — bad stress.
Understanding how your body responds to stress can be key to managing stressful situations and the impact it has on your health. This article will explore the effects of stress in more detail, highlighting the crucial link between stress and diet, and how healthy nutrition can be key to dealing with stress.
What happens when we feel stressed?
In any stressful situation, our nervous system and adrenal glands send signals to the rest of the body to prepare it for a physical response. The symptoms we experience when we get stressed (e.g. increased heart rate and heavy breathing) are described as physiological responses to ensure our survival. This innate ‘fight or flight’ reaction may have been necessary millions of years ago when survival meant facing immediate and real threats, but in the modern world where threats are minimal, it can have a negative impact on our health.
At times of perceived danger, the physiological changes that occur completely overwhelm the body and all normal functions. Specific hormones are triggered to increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and glucose to important muscles. This prioritizes physical functions over less urgent functions such as digestion, meaning our body has the power to face an enemy or flee. Further, our immune system is activated, breathing is accelerated and the heart moves into overdrive to support the body.
In our modern world, real threats to our survival, for the most part, is no longer present. Yet day-to-day stresses such as relationship issues, traffic jams, and demanding children can trigger the body’s fight or flight reaction. The more exposure we have to these stressors, the more intense and frequent our physiological reactions become until we find ourselves feeling constantly on edge. For those who do not cope and adapt their lifestyles, and ‘burn off’ the effects of our stress response (by keeping fit and eating healthily), stress builds up and can become a health problem.
Here is a list of potential impacts if stress continues to build up and is not effectively managed or treated:
Close up on stress and digestion
As seen in the diagram, the effects of stress on our eating habits and digestion can be significant, leading to appetite fluctuations and digestive problems. Why does this happen? The activated fight or flight response in the central nervous system immediately shuts down digestion. This shut down restricts blood flow, slows the contractions of the digestive muscles and decreases secretions needed for digestion. The body is now able to prioritize more important physical functions, such as heart and breathing rate in order to prepare the body for fight or flight.
Also, after a stressful period, the human body may go into ‘recovery mode’ where appetite is increased and our food cravings take over. Metabolic rate will drop to conserve energy, which means the body is more likely to store fat – particularly around the abdomen. Feeling stressed also leads to an increase in levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that contributes to weight gain.
Chronic stress can also suppress appetite, which over time can lead to weight-loss (and it’s not always the weight you want to lose – meaning muscle mass). This may also be linked to nervous movements such as pacing, ticks and leg shaking. While some people completely shut down when they are feeling stressed, others unintentionally move more.
In the modern world we can become stressed for many reasons other than impending danger and yet our bodies react the same. We have innate instincts. Our bodies prepare in an instinctive way and give less priority to other, less urgent, functions. Being aware of how your body works and deals with stress can help you to manage stress and stressful situations. Through little changes in nutrition, you can help your body recover from stressful periods more rapidly and minimise negative effects such as weight gain.
Article written by Courtney Chisholm, Registered Dietitian at World Health Calgary Place.