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How does food impact stress?

Adverse psychological mindsets like anxiety, frustration and depression can lead to a negative relationship with food, sleep and exercise however the worst offender is normally stress. And as we saw earlier, stress can act as a trigger for comfort eating. Everyone experiences stress from time to time however for some people it is a way of life. With the constant demands and deadlines from work, finances and families it is no wonder that stress is ten times more widespread today than they were a decade ago. Millions of people have stress related illnesses like chronic fatigue, body pains and auto-immune problems because our nervous systems are simply not built for the stressors of the modern day.

The central nervous system is a network of nerve cells and fibers that regulate your digestive and metabolic systems at a sub-conscious level. There are two primary aspects to the central nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (our “fight-or-flight” response) and the parasympathetic nervous systems (our “rest-and-digest” response). These two systems respond to cues from your thoughts, environment and food. You are probably already familiar with the fight-or-flight response. This is where your body produces a physiological response to a perceived threat by preparing for intense physical activity. It is your body’s way of saying we’re in danger so let’s get ready. The parasympathetic nervous systems has almost the exact opposite effect and causes the body to relax and return to a state of homeostasis after a flight-or-fight response.

When we experience a real or perceived threat, such as being almost being hit by a car or running late for a meeting, we activate the fight-or-flight response and shift into a state of stress. This activation of the sympathetic nervous systems tells your body to increase its blood flow and start channelling glucose away from your organs and out towards your arms and legs so that you are ready to fight or run away. As digestion is hardly an essential process during an emergency, your fight-or-flight response shuts it down. But even moderate or prolonged states of stress, such as worrying about an exam or subjecting yourselves to self-criticism, result in the kind of angst and worry that reduce the metabolism and the body’s ability to digest. Other negative emotional states also have a similar effect.

The good news is that you can restart your metabolism and digestive system by shifting your physiological state from fight-or-flight back to rest-and-digest. Once the parasympathetic nervous system is activated then your bodies start to conserve energy, slow the heart rate and increase digestive activities. So it is important to take steps to reduce the stress and anxiety in your life and maintain the balance. Being mindful of what you eat is important and you will want to reduce your caffeine intake if you drink a lot of coffee. Another really useful way to manage stress is through mindfulness whereby you create a state of consciousness focussed on the present.

Regular exercise is another great way good at helping as it releases endorphins and helps you sleep better. However remember that when you go for a workout it activates your fight-or-flight response so you need to balance this out by giving your system time to revert back to the rest-and-digest system status.

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