Words and photography by Kirsty Urquhart
Let’s talk stress! Generally, when we think about stress we are swaying towards a meaning of ‘distress’, a specific negative psychological experience, situation or event that has an impact both psychologically and physically on the body. Stress can however be defined as any demand on the body to adjust, which may be negative or positive (like falling in love).
It is estimated that up to 70% of visits to a primary health care practitioner are related to stress. Chronic stress is a risk factor for the development and progression of cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disturbance, depression, anxiety, hormonal disturbances and immune dysfunction.
So, what happens when we experience stress? Our bodies have an intricate stress adaptation response and within minutes of a stressful event, a complex interaction takes place between our nervous system and endocrine system, known as the hypothalamic–pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA). Our adrenal glands release specific hormones, activating the sympathetic nervous system (this is our flight or fight response), to which the adrenal glands are stimulated to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Blood is shunted away from the digestive system to enable the mobilization of energy to escape or fight off a physical threat. This increases our blood pressure, heart rate and changes our respiration. It’s a negative feedback loop, so once the perceived stress has passed, adrenaline synthesis is reduced and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to rest and recovery (or rest and digest). It’s a pretty cool survival mechanism, though when we experience continuous stress it can lead to an increased synthesis of cortisol and our bodies can become less responsive to its effects, causing ongoing HPA activation.
A number of nutrients can provide support for stress related conditions, these nutrients aim to support adrenal health, balance cortisol levels and neurotransmitters as well as providing cofactor nutrients, supporting overall health. Whilst stress is often unavoidable, we can use food as medicine and different lifestyle techniques to support our systems ability to withstand stress and build on our resiliency towards it. You might notice a few of these nutrients cross over from my building immunity post which you can catch up on reading here!
Vitamin C supports adrenal function and can reduce high levels of cortisol during stress.
B Group Vitamins
Specific B vitamins are used as cofactors to synthesize adrenaline during the stress response and are also used to synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. They can support adrenal function and downregulate the hypersecretion of cortisol during high stress situations.
Sources; Legumes, wholegrains (spelt and rye), nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios), fish/seafood (sardines, mackerel, salmon, tuna, oysters), seeds (sunflower, sesame, linseed, chia) avocado, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, capsicum, spinach, banana and tahini
An essential mineral utilized as a cofactor for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. Dietary intake of magnesium has been shown to be insufficient in western populations. Magnesium plays a role within the HPA axis, the central substrate of our stress response. Stress has been found to increase the excretion of magnesium, so more reason to get more of it! It is also a cofactor to GABA, an inhibitory NT that acts like a ‘brake’ during times of stress, improving relaxation.
Sources; Leafy green vegetables, seeds (pumpkin, chia, amaranth), nuts (Almonds, cashews, hazelnut, walnuts), quinoa, brown rice, organic tofu, legumes, avocado, banana and oats
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and specific amino acids such as L-theanine, Tryptophan and Tyrosine play a role as precursors to specific neurotransmitter synthesis (such as serotonin and dopamine) that help increase relaxation and reduce the effects of stress. Stress has the ability to deplete brain reserves of certain neurotransmitters as well as pull stores of protein from muscles, therefore it is vital that dietary protein is maintained to restore and replenish. The recommended daily intake of protein is 0.75g per kilogram of body weight for women.
Vitamin C has an important antioxidant role to play in the brain in addition to being a cofactor in both adrenaline and neurotransmitter synthesis. It supports adrenal function and can reduce high levels of cortisol during stress.
Sources; Raw red and yellow capsicum, golden kiwi fruit, citrus fruits, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, capsicum, asparagus, mango, brussel sprouts, tomato, green leafy vegetables, berries.
The best way to get in all of these nutrients? Focus on a wholefood diet with minimal processed foods. The biggest tip I give to a lot of clients is to simply cover 50% of your plate in vegetables (especially leafy greens) and top with a nut seed mix and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.
Spending time in nature can significantly influence a reduction in cortisol levels.
Sleep is seen as the time where the body can relax, recharge and repair. Sleep disturbance can cause an increase in the production of cortisol. Never underestimate the power of sleep! Make sure you are getting 8 hours per night of restful sleep. Aim for 7 – 9 hours per night.
Deep breathing has the ability to improve our sense of wellbeing. Shallow, short breaths can increase lactate concentrations in our blood, which can actually increase feelings of anxiety and stress! So, for the effective management of daily stress, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Exercise and Time in Nature
A hike to reduce stress?! Yes please! Forest bathing, spending time in nature, walking and observing its beauty can significantly influence a reduction in cortisol levels, improving stress resilience!
About the author
Qualifications: Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional Medicine and Dietetics), Registered Clinical Nutritionist (ANTA)
Kirsty Urquhart is a holistic clinical Nutritionist who is passionate about empowering and educating people through their journey with health. With an emphasis on food as medicine, she believes in the healing nature of food and the many rewards it can provide to assist in wellbeing and vitality. Her moto is ‘finding balance’, with a strong focus around individualised care.
When she isn’t in clinical practice, you’ll find her exploring a new hiking track, creating new recipes, cooking for friends, trying to improve her gardening skills or deep into a crime thriller novel!