Work, errands, cooking meals, soccer practice, gymnastics meets, taking grandma to the doctor, finding time to workout…do you feel like your to-do list is never-ending? If you’re like me, there are days where you wish you could settle everything with “bubble gum bubble gum in a dish…”
Stress is a constant in our lives. Stress can be a physical, emotional or chemical factor that causes bodily or mental tension. It can cloud our decision-making skills, affect our moods and induce specific food cravings; but, it can also help us perform better, work harder and faster. You may not always be able to control the amount of stress in your life but what you do have is the power to control the way you react to it.
When our bodies perceive stress, two things occur: 1) Activation of the flight or fight hormones. There is no other time that I have ever felt more like a real ninja leaping through the air than the moment you realize you’ve slept through your alarm (fight/flight hormones). 2) Activation of the HPA axis. To respond to a physical/emotional stress, the hypothalamus (H) produces the hormone CRF (corticotrophin-releasing factor). This hormone binds to specific receptors on the pituitary gland (P) which stimulates the production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH is transported to the adrenal glands (A) which stimulates the production of cortisol…and that is where our problem begins.
Chronic stress and high levels of circulating cortisol can affect our bodies in many different ways. Acne, stomach ulcers, muscle tension, headaches, hypertension…all problems in the different systems in our bodies, all can be exacerbated by stress. A study in the 2010 International Journal of Obesity concluded that “high cortisol levels resulted in altered food choices”. Stress can also induce more frequent non-hunger food cravings which can contribute to abdominal fat storage. Stressful individuals tend to consume quick, convenient food items, which often include processed, high-sodium, high-calorie choices.
Planning ahead is the one of the best defenses you can have to combat stress. Snacks, for example, can be pre-cut, pre-portioned and stored conveniently in your fridge, purse, car, gym bag.
Dr. Cassandra Claman, dermatologist at Springfield Clinic, comments on eating healthy with a very busy workday, “At work, I have had to hone my eating to brief breaks between patients and foods I can eat while working on charts. I have a huge drawer filled with food, my little fridge is filled and I carry food in my purse, my tote and my car. Some of the foods I have on hand to eat throughout the day are various flavors of almonds, all sorts of fresh fruits and veggies, dried fruits and trail mix, hard boiled eggs, skim milk cheese sticks, pretzels and a couple liters of water. As I leave the office for the day, I almost always have an apple in my hand so I am not ravenous the minute I walk into the door at home.”
Eating well-balanced meals and having high-nutrient snacks on hand can also help prevent spikes and dips in our blood sugars. Drastic changes in our blood sugar levels can cause crankiness, anxiety and irritability. Remember to listen to your internal cues of physical hunger. Stress can induce emotional hunger. Physical hunger strikes below the neck (stomach growls) and emotional hunger occurs above the neck (ice cream sounds like a good idea). Don’t forget about the power of exercise as a stress reliever. We turn our backs on exercise most often when we need it most.
I had an extremely long day last Tuesday. I was at the news station at 6:15am to appear as a guest on the Sunrise News. From there, I went to work and was bottled down until 6:30 pm. I had a headache and every ounce of me wanted to just drive past the gym, go home and crawl in bed. But I didn’t; I went to the gym, worked out and felt amazing. My headache disappeared and I was left with nothing but positive feelings about myself and all that I had accomplished during my day. Again, never underestimate the power of exercise.
“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control.”