Neighborhood Nutrition: Balancing the Body’s Stress Response with Food, Lifestyle

by 
Wendy Romig, Weavers Way Neighborhood Nutrition Team

WHAT THE TEAM HAS IN STORE

DECEMBER: Healthy Holidays. Holiday eating can often compromise nutrition and digestion. We’ll suggest strategies, recipes and resources to help you stay well and feel great throughout the season.

OPEN HOURS AT WEAVERS WAY AMBLER:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 4, 1-3 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 11, 3-5 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 14, 5-7 p.m.
  • Friday, Dec. 21, 5-7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 8, 1-3 p.m.
  • Thursday, Jan. 17, 4-6 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 22, 10 a.m.-noon.

WORKSHOPS

See listing on Page 22, or visit www.weaversway/coop/events.

In this electronic age, where life seems to move faster and faster by the year, chronic stress is becoming more widely recognized as one of the underlying causes of many health issues. Stress isn’t just a catch-word; it has definable symptoms that can have profound impacts on our health. The Mayo Clinic has identified signs and symptoms of stress, including headaches, chest pain, sleep disturbances, fatigue, digestive issues, anxiety, low motivation, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating and social withdrawal. If elevated stress levels persist, one may be at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and hypertension. 

Many of these symptoms are linked to imbalances in the HPA axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. 

In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky elaborates more on the HPA axis and its role in getting us out of dangerous situations, such as when the saber-tooth is chasing us down. In today’s world, people are experiencing the same levels of ignition in their stress-response systems even though they are sitting in an office worrying about work conflicts. The same hormones are released (cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine), but our bodies aren’t bolting to safety. Running to escape a saber-tooth cat utilizes the hormone release properly; once the danger has passed, our systems go back into a relaxed state with the excitatory hormones cleared from the body. But with chronic stress, there is no returning to a relaxed state and the hormones are in continuous production. This is where modern humans are finding themselves confronting a whole new set of health imbalances. 

While we can’t always control the stressors in our lives, we can change how we handle stress and its impact on our health. Nutrition is one important component for lowering the stress “load.” Here are a few considerations:

  • Focus on a whole-foods, plant-based diet with good protein sources.
  • Increase intake of antioxidants like dark leafy greens, berries, squash and sweet potatoes.
  • Increase intake of water and electrolytes.
  • Avoid sugary foods.
  • Limit refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta).
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Add pro- and prebiotic food sources, like greens, whole grains, legumes and fermented foods.

While supplements should not be used to replace a healthy diet and lifestyle, a few targeted supplements may be beneficial during times of high stress, including Vitamin C, B-complex, probiotics and digestive enzymes. 

Helpful herbs include adaptogens that help bring balance to the HPA axis. Eleuthero (also known as Siberian ginseng), ashwagandha and reishi mushrooms all can support the body’s stress responses. However, before using herbal supplements, it’s important to check for contraindications with existing medications and illnesses. 

Meanwhile, lifestyle is one of the biggest factors in stress load. Taking measures to ensure you are getting proper rest and down time is critical. Other lifestyle considerations include:

  • Light to moderate exercise — over-exercising could increase stress on the body.
  • Deep-breathing exercises throughout the day — in for four counts and out for eight.
  • Stretching and yoga.
  • Journaling to process difficult times.
  • Practicing gratitude.
  • Meditating.
  • A hot bath or hot tub session with a few drops of essential oil of lavender.

We don’t always realize how much stress we are feeling, so it’s important to check in with yourself periodically. A few simple adjustments to nutrition and lifestyle can go a long way toward improved health and well-being in all circumstances. 

Wendy Romig, MS, CNS, LDN, is a functional nutritionist, clinical herbalist and owner of Sage Integrative Health Center (www.sageintegrativehealth.com) in Mt. Airy.