For About and By Caregivers
Nutrition Ideas for Stress Reduction

By  Cheryl Ellis, Staff Writer


Stress depletes the body of energy in a variety of ways. Loss of sleep, feelings of agitation or depression, and development of poor eating habits are “side effects” of stress that need intervention. Some stress can help us rise to the occasion and get things done, but too much stress drains the body. One way to break the stress cycle is by changing the diet to one that can actually help reduce stress.

The body under stress will experience a reduction in vital nutrients, such as B vitamins, which are nervous system helpers. Depending on magnesium to help with muscles and calcium for bones, the overstressed system may benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements.  Before starting a vitamin regimen, consult with your primary doctor about any special needs you may have.  The doctor may be able to refer you to a nutritionist who can target specific requirements and make useful dietary changes.

When stressed, all individuals may go for “comfort food,” which can include coffee, even if it’s decaffeinated. Coffee, cola and chocolate are three major suspects when it comes to providing comfort while introducing caffeine, which will sap one’s ability to relax. Caffeine also dilates the kidneys, increasing the need to empty the bladder.  While there’s nothing wrong with active, healthy kidneys, it becomes inconvenient in the middle of the night.  Frequent urination also requires that we put the water back into our system, and a continuous cycle of tasty beverages with caffeine’s stimulating element can dehydrate our systems.

Dehydration is a common nutritional problem. We don’t wash our clothes in soda or tea, but we frequently “wash our insides” with these substances. Many people complain that “water is boring,” and they have a point. Some folks recommend adding a splash of cranberry juice, lemon or lime to adjust the flavor. There are vitamin supplements that can be added to water to provide a break, also. The added hydration can be a tremendous stress reducer, especially when incorporating exercise into a stress management program.

Small changes that focus on key areas such as fat, fiber and sugars lead to big improvements in overall health. Many of us opt for drive-thru or delivery to solve the stress of cooking a meal. Some fast food companies are offering healthier choices, but the old, less healthy favorites may be hard to get away from. If you find that you are having a problem acclimating yourself or your loved one to the “healthy” options, add on components such as salad or vegetables to round out the meal and incorporate fiber.

Fiber helps the body move food through the digestive system, enhances the “full” feeling and improves digestion by helping eliminate waste from the system. Constipation can increase stress in the body both physically and emotionally. A balanced system eliminates waste at the proper intervals, allowing the individual to feel comfortable physically, leading to emotional comfort as well as physical.

When it comes to vitamins, the first priority is to “eat” your vitamins through “whole” foods that retain their nutrients. Whole foods do not have to be served raw, but there should be no processing that adds preservatives. Creating “whole food meals” can be done gradually by adding salads, or by blanching or steaming cut vegetables. Since time and energy are usually a factor, consider paying extra for pre-cut vegetables. When cooking “whole” foods for you and your loved one, you may need to add time on to the quick cooking for softer vegetables.

Even frozen foods, properly cooked and with a minimum of additives, can provide better nutritional alternatives than one might imagine. Opt for minimal processing. This includes the amount of sodium in canned, frozen or even in deli-prepared foods.

Salad bars or food bars in grocery chains may appear healthy, but combine questionable ingredients. For example, the “healthy” tuna salad may contain far more mayonnaise than some people might use. The same is true for salad dressings prepared at salad bars and added on to the greens. Most retailers and restaurants will disclose nutrition values, but you can get an idea by just looking at some offerings. One way around the confusion in salad bars is to mix “plain,” unadorned vegetables, nuts and pastas with a smaller portion of your favorite sauce laden dish.

Overeating can be a reaction to stress, but it is also something that creates stress on many levels. Experimenting with smaller portions and more frequent meals can reduce the demand on the body to process a big meal at once. This technique also cuts down on berating oneself for eating too much.

Any physical distress can result in generalized stress for the individual, which includes even a mild raising of blood pressure.  Salt is a nutrient everyone needs; but when overused, can create bloating, mild dehydration and problems with blood pressure.  Salt alternatives range from lemon pepper to products like dulse, a sea vegetable that adds salt flavor but may be healthier because it is not table salt.  With any changes, look for items that may create food allergies.  For example, sea vegetables can create allergic reactions in people who have an iodine allergy.

Sugar in moderate quantities can be metabolized and exercised away. The definition of “moderate” varies from one source (and one individual) to another. Cutting out sugar may be impossible, considering many foods (even ones from the health food store) contain some variation of sugar.

Sugar’s other names are high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, turbinado, dextrose, maltose and others. Sugar “alcohols” like malitol can still affect blood sugar. Artificial sweeteners have their drawbacks, too. Allergies, digestive intolerance and more are part of “real” and “fake” sugar. Until you allow your body a break from sugar, you may not be able to tell which reactions are due to its consumption.

Reducing allergens and foods that keep the body in a “hyper” state (caffeine, salty foods and sugars) take away the need for the body to work to process the ingredients. Taking a break from some foods and additives is one way to reduce stress on the body. Rather than a stressful and radical makeover of your diet, remove one item at a time, and rotate it back into your diet about four days later. This can help you identify minor and major food stressors on the body.

Allergens, portions and “bad foods” can add stress to your life. Adjusting the content and quantity of food leads to less stress and better nutrition.

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