How Diet, Supplements, and Adaptogenic Herbs Can Help You De-StressNovember 9, 2018 /
Anne Danahy, MS, RDN
Chronic stress has been implicated in many health conditions, ranging from depression and anxiety to heart attack and stroke. However, supporting the body with a balanced diet, vitamins, and nutraceutical and herbal supplements can help most people better adapt to stressors and minimize the effects of stress on health.1
Understanding the Stress Response
The stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” response, is a series of autonomic reactions within the body to a stressor that is meant to maintain the steady state of equilibrium or homeostasis.1 While this response is a survival mechanism, the majority of people who experience excessive hormonal and physiological responses to everyday stressors do not fear for their lives but are overreacting to everyday factors, such as being stuck in traffic, facing a deadline at work, or experiencing some family or financial problems.
The stress response begins in the brain. When a person perceives danger, the hypothalamus sends a signal through the sympathetic nervous system. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal glands, which cause heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to increase, while blood vessels constrict.
After the initial surge of adrenal hormones, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal network, also known as the HPA axis, releases a series of hormones in the following order:1
- Corticotropin-releasing hormone (hypothalamus)
- Adrenocorticotropic hormone (pituitary gland)
- Cortisol (adrenal glands)
Cortisol releases glucose and fat into the bloodstream so that they can be used as fuel. It also restricts the action of insulin. The HPA axis response allows the body to stay on high alert and continue to fight the stressor until the perceived threat passes. In the case of ongoing, low-level stress, the HPA axis remains active. Instead of regulating metabolism and replenishing energy stores, the body continues to release high cortisol levels, which contribute to appetite, storage of fat, and weight gain.1,2,3
Health Conditions Associated With Chronic Stress
Not surprisingly, repeated exposure to stress, and the hormonal and physiological responses that come with it, can take a toll on one’s body.2 During acute stress, the impact on blood pressure and vasoconstriction increases the risk of arrhythmias, heart attack, and stroke. (2) The hormonal changes associated with long-term stress add an additional strain on many of the body’s systems by increasing glucose and lipid levels; increasing the need for insulin; altering gastrointestinal and digestive functions; impacting mood, cognition, and memory; and challenging the immune system, among other effects.2
Some of the health conditions that are associated with chronic stress include:1,2,3
- Cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension and hyperlipidemia
- Impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance
- Visceral obesity
- Metabolic syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Autoimmune diseases
- Mood disorders, including anxiety and depression
- Reproductive disorders including amenorrhea, infertility, and low testosterone levels
- Compromised immune system
- Memory and cognitive impairment
- Sleep disorders
The Importance of Diet
As RDNs review the aforementioned list of health conditions that can be attributed to stress, it should be apparent that diet plays an important role in managing many, if not most, of them. A nutrition assessment for a patient referred for any of the aforementioned conditions should include asking about the patient’s stress and how he or she manages it, as well as a discussion about the added risk that stress plays in the development and management of various chronic diseases.
For many people, stress makes it more difficult to eat a healthy diet because they turn to “comfort food.” Researchers have identified an association between high stress levels and higher intakes of refined carbohydrates and high fat foods.4 In a chronically stressed person, glucose is available, but because cortisol restricts insulin release, the body’s cells remain hungry. Another familiar component of a high-stress diet is increased caffeine intake, which further increases adrenaline and cortisol levels.5 Together, these types of foods and beverages exacerbate the hormonal effects of stress and make visceral weight gain, insulin resistance, and metabolic diseases more likely.
RDNs can work with patients to help improve their diets, not only to manage chronic stress-related diseases, but also to support their body so they can better adapt to stress. Because stress commonly results in poor sleep; visceral fat gain; and elevated glucose, blood pressure, and lipids, the diet should be low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats to help offset the risk of metabolic disease. In addition, adding more fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats can reduce stress-induced inflammation,5,6 and diets that include complex carbohydrates may influence serotonin levels and improve well-being.6 Finally, research on the gut-brain axis suggests that the microbiome plays an important role in stress management, anxiety, and depression.7 Encouraging adequate intake of probiotic-rich foods and supplements, if indicated, may also help to support a healthy stress response.