April 10, 2009

Managing in Tough Times - Controlling Stress Through a Healthy Lifestyle

By Jan Wade-Miller, Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

During tough economic times, our stress levels increase, which makes eating well and being active more important than ever. Balanced nutrition is essential to overall good health, but it also can affect your ability to cope with stress. Stress can be a problem in itself. But stress can sometimes lead to unhealthy lifestyle patterns—which lead to more stress!

Can Certain Foods Increase My Stress?
You may not realize that there are substances which produce dietary stress in what you regularly eat and drink. For instance:
Caffeine is a stimulant. It mimics the effects of adrenaline.
• A high sugar intake may increase stress, putting you on a blood sugar roller coaster.
Chronic dieting and fasting can also add to dietary stress by placing extra demand on your hormonal system to maintain adequate body fuel levels in the face of inadequate food intake.
Some of the above substances are low in nutrients plus they rob your body of its stores of nutrients. Some also stimulate heart rate, affect mood, behaviors and brain chemistry and may compound the health issues associated with stress. Enjoy sweets and caffeine occasionally but avoid them during the day as you can experience huge dips and surges in your energy levels.

What Foods Should I Give Up?
You shouldn’t have to give up any food unless you have a particular health problem. Put variety into your eating plan. Make sure you eat from all the major food groups daily, including lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

What Foods Will Help with Stress Management?
The B-vitamins support the entire nervous system. The B-vitamins are also essential to energy production, provide support to the immune system and help maintain regular blood sugar levels, which may become high due to stress. Foods that contain B-vitamins include Brewer’s yeast, liver, soy, broccoli, legumes, fresh meats, unprocessed, whole grain foods, lentils, salmon, corn, nuts, sunflower seeds, egg and citrus fruit.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant. Most people know that vitamin C helps improve immunity, but it also has been found to reduce blood pressure and reduce the actual symptoms of stress. Foods that contain vitamin C include citrus fruits, green leafy vegetables, melon, tomatoes, broccoli, mango, and red and green bell peppers.

Protein-rich foods help maintain a stable blood sugar. Eating them slows down the rate at which sugar is released into your bloodstream and keeps your blood sugar balanced. It also keeps you feeling full longer, making you less likely to grab for a high-calorie sweet snack. Food such as cheese, milk, yogurt, eggs, fish, meats, legumes (beans and lentils), peanut butter, poultry and tofu should be included in your diet.

Magnesium helps with muscle relaxation and heartbeat regulation. Studies have shown that it helps with insomnia and anxiety, two issues common in people under chronic stress. Foods that contain magnesium include dairy, meat, eggs, fish, seafood, green leafy vegetables, nuts, tofu, and whole grains.

Essential fats like omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can only be obtained through our diet. They promote the flow of nutrients into cells and allow waste products to escape from the cells. Seafood such as salmon and other oily fish contain omega-3 fatty acids and appear to help relieve mild depression. Food sources of these essential fatty acids include nuts (almonds, walnuts), oils (canola, flax, soybean), oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), and seeds (flax, pumpkin).

Other stress fighting tips?
  • Go for walks. Regular exercise will burn calories, relieve stress and increase your sense of well-being.
  • Take a long, relaxing, warm bath
  • Take a yoga class to stretch those tense muscles
  • Use deep-breathing exercises
  • Stretch to help relieve tension
  • Develop a support network to rely on in times of need
  • Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings concerning the stressors in your life
  • Listen to music
  • Read for pleasure
  • Learn a simple meditation technique
Using some of these ideas can make a big difference in your physical and emotional reactions to the stresses in your life.

Stress Management: Understanding Stress
Stress Management: Strategies for Individuals

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