Diet and lifestyle tips for dealing with stress
The term “burnout” is most commonly used in the workplace, but in this work-from-home era, burnout has come home: between relentless zoom calls, homeschooling, and bleak newsfeeds, we don’t seem to catch any interruption. Burnout is the direct result of prolonged exposure. And while most of us know that stress affects our health and wellbeing, we tend to underestimate the extent to which it affects us.
To fully understand the effects of stress, chronic stress, and burnout, it is important to understand the science.
Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, is made by the adrenal glands and regulated by the HPA axis, which connects our adrenal glands to the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in our brain. When we experience a stressful event, be it environmental, physical or emotional, our HPA axis directs the adrenal glands to increase cortisol output. This increased cortisol increases blood sugar levels and stimulates the fight or flight response. In a fight or flight, the body switches off functions that are not helpful in an immediate life or death situation, such as digestion, immune response, reproduction and growth. When the stressful event is perceived as over, the HPA axis works to restore homeostasis.
The effects of stress are cumulative. When we experience chronic (long-term) stress, we build a resistance to fluctuations in cortisol, which makes it more difficult for the HPA axis to bring the body back to normal levels. Non-essential bodily functions are also impaired. The immune system may work at a reduced capacity, making us susceptible to disease and inflammation. Digestion can slow down and lead to bacterial growth, gas, eating disorders, leaky gut, food sensitivities, and other digestive problems. In women, fertility may be impaired and PMS symptoms may be exacerbated.
Chronic stress manifests itself differently for everyone. Symptoms include general fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, low libido, weight gain or loss, infertility, and skin problems such as acne and eczema. More serious complications can arise over time. Many of these stress-related ailments are treatable conditions in their own right – we can introduce a new skin care routine for the acne or work on our sleep hygiene to get better rest – but addressing the symptoms alone will not solve the problem. I consider it a symptom of stress: fighting individual problems as they develop without addressing the root cause.
Prolonged stress, coupled with a lack of stress management tools, can lead to burnout: a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that can affect our mood, immune system, hormones, sleep, and more. Many of our cultural norms are actually signs of burnout: the feeling that the first thing we need in the morning is coffee; other stimulants like sugar and refined carbohydrates to help keep our energy levels up throughout the day; and a glass of wine or a cocktail to relax in the evening. Despite our exhaustion, anxiety can keep us up at night, make us tired in the morning, and look for that caffeine hit to get started. Other signs of burnout include lack of motivation or energy, cravings for sweet and salty foods, brain fog, and memory loss.
Almost everyone who comes to my nutrition practice has experienced some level of burnout or chronic stress. This is especially true for working mothers trying to balance their full-time work and their full-time children.
MANAGE STRESS AND TREAT BURNOUT
The good news is that symptoms of burnout and chronic stress can be improved by diet and lifestyle measures that are good for you regardless of your stress level. I usually recommend a combination of these approaches. They work together to relieve stress and help the body’s stress response function properly.
Cortisol has a natural circadian rhythm, similar to your sleep cycle: levels are highest in the morning, which helps you get out of bed and moving, and lowest in the evening, when it is time to rest. What, how, and when you eat plays an important role in regulating cortisol and maintaining a healthy cortisol rhythm. So, if you’re looking for a new way to stress-eat, this is your ticket.
Start the day with breakfast that will help you control blood sugar levels. Make sure you are low in sugar and high in protein, with lots of healthy fats and fiber.
Make lunch the biggest meal of the day. These include protein, healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables.
Have a lighter and earlier dinner to encourage restful sleep. When we eat, our cortisol levels naturally rise a little. Eating too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep. Try to allow at least three hours between dinner and bed to give your body time to digest its food and lower your cortisol levels.
Aim for both a variety and an abundance of vegetables in your meals, along with a serving of whole protein per day. Animal protein – such as eggs, dairy products, fish, poultry or red meat – offers a full spectrum of amino acids and has the highest bioavailability of nutrients. This means that it can be more easily absorbed. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, make sure you are getting at least one serving of complementary proteins (like beans and rice) or non-genetically modified soy products per day to make sure you are getting all of the essential amino acids.
Reduce your intake of caffeine, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. These foods are easy to become dependent on. If you’ve ever felt the need for a coffee, a piece of chocolate, or a glass of wine, you know what I’m talking about. A moderate intake of these foods can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, but sometimes we have to check in with ourselves. I often find it easier to get a cold turkey for a period of time to help overcome addiction and curb cravings. (My reset program is great for this.) The first few days can be difficult, but you’ll find your natural energy soon after – and it’s worth it.
Eat balanced meals regularly throughout the day. And don’t go more than three or four waking hours without eating. This pattern helps regulate your blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy cortisol rhythm.
In addition to a healthy diet, lifestyle interventions are critical to stress management. Here are some places to start.
Prioritize sleep. Lack of sleep leads to increased cortisol levels, increased irritability, and a reliance on stimulants to get through the day.
Do your best to remove unnecessary stressors. Sometimes the triggers are inevitable, but if you can turn off the news or turn off negative energy, go for it.
Make room in your schedule for free time and activities that you really love. If you want to paint, read novels, write diaries, ride a bike, or get a manicure, try to find time.
Exercise daily and spend time in nature. Sometimes a short training video or a walk outdoors is enough – 20 minutes of exercise is enough.
Develop a daily mindfulness or meditation practice. Studies show that meditation alone can effectively lower cortisol levels and improve circadian rhythms.
Since we’re taking a 360-degree approach here, I don’t want to mention that dietary supplements can aid the body’s response to stress. My favorites are ashwagandha, rhodiola, fish oil, L-theanine, B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C. These are most effective when used in conjunction with a healthy diet and stress management techniques.
Some of these tools seem easier said than done, and I understand that. Start with one thing – maybe breakfast, exercise, or meditation – and build from there. Keep a journal to track your progress and find support and community where you can. (I keep a journal called The Well Journal that has room for all of that.)
Mia Rigden, MS, CNS, is a certified nutritionist, health advisor, and founder of RASA, a private nutrition practice based in Los Angeles. She works with clients worldwide through one-on-one coaching, Mom Group (a group nutrition program for mothers), and The Reset, a twenty-one day whole foods program. Rigden is also the author of the Well Journal and will publish a cookbook in 2022.
This article is for informational purposes only, whether or not it contains advice from doctors and health professionals. This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor should it be used as a substitute for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the expert’s views and do not necessarily reflect those of goop.