Good question. The NHS defines stress as your body's reaction to a mental or emotional pressure. This is a pretty basic description and one which healthcare professionals really struggle to define. We all know how we feel when we're stressed; so is stress the feeling, the emotions, the body's response? Or is stress the actual thing that makes us feel this way in the first place?
Research is unclear on this, and add to this that stress differs from person to person. What one person feels is an overwhelming mental pressure, another person wont. Some people thrive on new experiences. Others feel overwhelmed by change. One person's response to that perceived pressure may be affected sleep. For another it may be poor concentration; or headaches; or tummy upset; or heart palpitations; or feeling overwhelmed, it might be low mood, or anxiety....the list goes on.
Suffice to say that there are numerous different experiences which are individual, and the stress response in our bodies occurs as a result of a perceived stress; it's your personal trigger essentially. I usually say that stress is whatever YOU say it is. Your stress (and your stress symptoms) will differ from someone else's.
So aside from the feelings and emotions a perceived stress will produce, the body's reaction is fairly similar in terms of what happens internally.
Our hormones adrenaline and cortisol are increased; preparing us to face this stressor and actioning the age-old fight or flight response. In normal circumstances, once the perceived danger/stress has passed, our body's state returns to normal. But in chronic stress, such as that occurring at present, where the stimulant isn't removed, it's not a one-off event, cortisol production continues, ultimately affecting our insulin levels. Remember when we talked about insulin previously? This manages the amount of sugar we have in our blood stream.
Our appetite increases, the body wants to bring on more energy in the form of food, preparing us to face the danger (or the stress) or do a runner. What gives quick energy release? Foods heavy with sugars which can be released quickly into the bloodstream; so we crave cakes, biscuits, and sweet things when we're stressed. Our body is primed to respond this way. But as we don't actually have an end to it, we keep craving those foods, and the body takes on more glucose, produces more insulin to deal with it, and as we don't actually use it for the fight or flight scenario, we store it. As fat. Ready for a day when we do need it. And we continue in this cycle.....
Are we doomed then to put on weight and constantly eat cakes, pastries, chocolate and biscuits during times of stress and for the rest of lockdown? Well, no, although that might be your dream, it's not a great health outcome let's be honest! (Think back....diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, arthritis...all related to weight gain and insulin resistance). Taking on board foods which are fibre rich can stabilise blood sugars and decrease those cravings. Foods which have the best fibre content? Whole foods such as vegetables, legumes and beans, nuts, and seeds.
Eating little and often can also assist. Having decent (healthy wholefood! snacks between meals. Hummus and vegetable sticks is my current favourite, or a smoothie packed with all the good stuff and topped up with almond milk.
There is also fibre in wholegrains found in oats, brown rice, wholewheat pasta and bread, but be mindful that these are subpar compared to vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds in calming those cravings and fat storage.
Of course as well as addressing blood sugar levels, we also need to consider how we can decrease those pesky cortisol levels too; this is where the things we've touched on previously come into play: Exercise, being outside, good sleep, breathing or relaxation techniques, meditation, mindfulness, the practice of gratitude, journaling; all of these have proven benefits in decreasing cortisol levels, which in turn will decrease our cravings
If you'd like to try my 14-day Sugar Challenge, empowering you to move past those food cravings and improve sleep, energy levels, mood and of course weight, you can download it for FREE here
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