April is Stress Awareness Month – a little ironic that my blog on this subject is being released mid- way through the month – perhaps a symptom of my own stress management and a need to heed my own words!

Defined by psychologists as, ‘feelings of being overwhelmed with the demands placed upon us and a lack of resources to manage these’, it can manifest itself in different ways. I want to draw attention to the lack of resources element – as I believe (and we have evidence to show) that what we eat can act as a resource to form part of our stress management plan.

That irritating nursery rhyme about Henry, Delila and their holey bucket always springs to mind. Keeping your holey bucket topped up with good nutrition, sleep and relaxation to counteract the draining of your resources through stress, work or other demands on the body such as excessive exercise is really important.

And yet the reality is when we feel stressed we take short cuts, we lack will power and we look for quick rewards. Our buckets are often filled with wine or chocolate instead! Eating right and in a balanced way often involves a bit of planning and when resources are low, planning is often the first thing to go out the window. We think we’re giving ourselves what we need to weather the storm when in fact we’re just adding to its fury.

All too often we then berate ourselves for not doing better which in turn just compounds the stress we’re under. Not good. So let’s just take a step back and look at what’s going on behind the scenes.

Stress in the modern day is no longer life threatening; tigers aren’t hanging around on street corners waiting to eat us, but unfortunately our body’s response to stress is still that of a caveman. Faced with what we perceive as adversity, our natural fight or flight mechanisms kick into action. Our response to a stressful situation is to react immediately, aiming to resolve the situation quickly and efficiently. The body is only concerned with immediate fuel for the brain, heart and muscles. Glucose is ready for active muscles to take up and use to run! However, with stress at work or home you might not necessarily be ‘running’ anywhere!

Ongoing stress will cause cortisol levels to remain persistently high. This will disturb sleep and digestion as blood is taken away from the digestive organs. Cortisol suppresses how insulin works which means in the long term you are more at risk of weight gain. It is also interferes with our hunger hormones and will convert protein to fuel – you don’t need protein to repair and replenish your muscles if you’re going to get eaten by a tiger.

Remember, there are benefits to a regulated blood glucose (sugar) level. Large swings in blood glucose can cause irritability and poor, ‘reactive’ food choices which drain our bucket further. Regulated blood glucose levels can be achieved through aiming for a balance to your meals. This means some wholegrain carbs such as wholemeal pitta, bulgur wheat, quinoa or brown rice noodles put with some lean protein such as chicken, eggs, pulses, fish or seafood and plenty of crunch in the form of salad and veggies.

Balanced eating will also encourage maximal uptake of the amino acid tryptophan which is needed for serotonin production. Serotonin will work to counteract the effects of raised cortisol levels.

Well that’s not bloody rocket science I hear you say. Well no, it’s not, and yet it is far from the reality of our diets at times of stress. Just like our car needs to pass its annual MOT if we want to continue driving it, our body has to receive the right foods if our own complex machinery is to perform well. And it is often our beliefs that it doesn’t matter, that we can wing it, that we’ll deal with that ‘later’ that stop us from doing something about it.

So let’s get back to our bucket… the first step for many can be acknowledgement that they aren’t in fact super human or a robot. We are not weak or useless for eating badly, there are real reasons behind the scenes that are contributing to these habits. Acceptance of this can help us to think, ‘Ok, I’m not useless, there are some things out of my control but what are some small things that I can I do differently?’

Remember, what will see us through to better eating behaviours is making small tweaks that help to make it easier for our subconscious. Our stressed brain loves a good short cut:

  • Get healthy food in the cupboards – squeeze in time for an online food shop – it will save countless trips to the supermarket on the way home when you’re at your lowest ebb.
  • Or if the thought of thinking up something for dinner fills you with dread, use a delivery box service like hello fresh to get you through the next few weeks – there’s some great discounted offers to take advantage of even if you choose to cancel when things are calmer.
  • Stock up on snacks which nourish but still taste good. My top favourites are edamame beans, salty sweet popcorn, perkier bars or or half a banana on toast with peanut butter. For really challenging days you can choose chocolate coated edamame beans instead!
  • Say no to things if you need to and once you’ve read this, stop scrolling and just go to bed.