Eight Nutrition Essentials to Increase Resilience and Beat Stress
Remember how in Sesame Street, each episode would be sponsored by a letter of the alphabet? Well, if 2020 we’re a Sesame Street episode, it would definitely be sponsored by the letter “R” as in restrictions, risk, recession, racism, rallies, rights, retrograde, and perhaps most importantly, resilience.
I don’t know about you, but 2020 (at least so far) has been a major lesson in resilience for me. My mental, emotional, and physical resilience has been tested thoroughly this year and it’s only June.
So, if you’ve been feeling the same need to cultivate resilience (mentally, emotionally, and physically) lately, this blog post is for you!
Today I’m sharing eight holistic nutrition essentials to increase physical resilience and beat stress! This post is based on a recent session I did for our Elevate Your Life series, so if you didn’t attend or just need a refresher, I hope you enjoy!
First off, we need to talk about how stress actually affects the body and mind.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
I think we’ve all heard of fight, flight, or freeze mode. When a stress-trigger enters our environment, the body naturally switches into survival mode. In early humans, this meant that when we came across a deadly snake while foraging for berries, our body immediately sent out the hormonal SWAT team—cortisol, adrenaline, and a few other chemical messengers that help prepare the body to either stay and fight or run from the situation to save ourselves from pain or death.
Our pupils dilate, insulin helps glucose enter our muscle cells quickly to make us strong and fast and ready to defend ourselves, and all other body functions like digestion, sex drive, critical thinking, and many more, get put on stand-by mode so all our resources can go to survival.
Of course, in life as we know it in 2020, most of us are very rarely coming across a life-threatening event in our external environment, thank goodness. However, the body doesn’t know the difference between a perceived and real threat—which means that a fast-approaching deadline, getting laid off, 24/7 news of a deadly pandemic and atrocities perpetrated by law enforcement, difficult family issues, and even negative self-talk, can all illicit a very real physiological survival response.
There are two physiological responses to stress that I quickly want to draw your attention to.
The first is the effect of cortisol on hormonal imbalance.
Stress and Your Hormones
If you attended my Healthy Hormones series, or if you’ve read this blog post, you know how much of an impact a cortisol imbalance has on every other body system. Essentially, if you’re constantly being bombarded with stress triggering situations- whether perceived or real- your adrenals are constantly pumping out the hormonal SWAT team of cortisol and adrenaline to help you cope and survive.
Unfortunately, our adrenals can start to slow down when they become overburdened if we aren’t able to do the things that help us cope with stress in a healthy way. These include a combination of strengthening and nourishing the body, working on mindset and mindfulness-based stress coping techniques, and possibly working on the spiritual side of things to help you gain a wider perspective and awareness on what’s really going on within you.
With that said, if we don’t have those stress-coping techniques in place, cortisol production becomes favoured over progesterone production, leading to imbalances with both progesterone and estrogen- our female sex hormones- and our thyroid hormone T4 is converted to the inactive form reverse T3, which leads to thyroid resistance and symptoms of thyroid problems.
When our hormones are out of balance, we feel depressed, anxious, moody, and irritable. We put on weight, feel fatigued, our libido becomes non-existent, we can be quick to cry or lash out… Even our hair and skin lose their lustre and vibrancy. All in all, we feel dull, disconnected, and down on ourselves. It’s not fun.
Of course, that’s an extremely simplified explanation of stress and hormonal imbalance but I think you get the jist.
The second physiological response to stress I want to draw your attention to is inflammation in the body and how it impacts our mood and mindset and our actual ability to cope with stress.
Something to understand is that stress goes beyond these perceived threats and stressors. There are very real physical stressors that we encounter every single day. These are things like poor-quality and processed foods, physical inactivity, smoking, lack of sleep, exposure to toxins like pesticides, car exhaust, pollution, and chemicals, and the list goes on.
Of course, there are also acute physical stressors like breaking a bone, but the ones I just mentioned are considered chronic as a lot of us are exposed at a low-grade for an extended period of time, which contributes to a chronic and low-grade internal stress-response in the form of inflammation.
Stress and Inflammation
These chronic low levels of inflammation contribute to mental health concerns as well, like mood swings, irritability, depression, and cognitive decline.
So how exactly does inflammation in the body affect our mental health and ability to effectively cope with stress?
Well, it’s kind of a vicious circle and it all comes down to the gut-brain axis.
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system between the central nervous system which comprises the brain and spinal cord, and the enteric nervous system, a web of neurons that determines the function of the GI tract! (That is right—you have neurons in your gut!)
In short, this essentially means that the health of the gut microbiome is directly related to our mental health, and visa-versa.
The things that really hurt the gut like poor-quality food, stress, smoking, alcohol use, and toxin exposure, therefore also affect your brain and cognitive function as well.
The bottom line is this: to be as healthy and happy as possible, we need to reduce stress, eliminate inflammatory foods, and increase anti-inflammatory foods.
So, with that said, let’s dive into the eight holistic nutrition essentials to beat stress!
Eight Holistic Nutrition Essentials to Beat Stress
1. Mood Follows Food
This one is simple but it’s important to mention. When you are hungry, your mood will naturally drop. This is due to a drop in blood sugar (and therefore lower energy levels).
The solution? Don’t let yourself get hungry! This doesn’t mean never stop eating (that would result in another kind of problematic blood sugar response) but it does mean to be smart with your meals and eat regularly. Protein stabilizes mood, healthy fats help you feel satiated, and carbs provide your body with a boost in energy. So it’s very important to eat a combination of all three at every meal and snack time. This keeps the blood sugar nice and balanced, which means your mood stays nice and balanced. Simple as that.
2. Nourish the “First” Brain
Did you know that the brain is 60% fat? It’s true. Which means it really needs enough good quality fat to function.
If you want to improve mood, focus, attention, and memory, you should be eating plenty of healthy fats! These are foods like avocados, olives, olive oil, coconut, soaked nuts and seeds, and even butter and ghee from pasture-raised cows (if you can tolerate dairy).
It’s also important to remember that there are unhealthy fats, specifically trans fats and poor-quality fats like refined vegetable oils, which do more harm than good for the brain. So quality is really important.
Another important brain-nourishing fat comes from omega-3 fish oils. Fish oil contains DHA and EPA, two essential fatty acids that are incredibly important for brain and heart health, as well as reducing overall inflammation in the body. Oily fish like wild sockeye salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines are all great sources of omega-3s. But if these fish aren’t your jam, you can always take a daily omega-3 supplement. (If you’d like to learn more about my favourite supplements, check out this blog post.)
3. Nourish the “Second” Brain
When I say the second brain, I’m referring to the enteric nervous system I touched on earlier, in the gut. More broadly, the health of the entire digestive and intestinal system, where food is digested, absorbed, and waste is eliminated, is extremely important for good mental health and stress-coping ability.
Whereas the first brain really needs good fats to be healthy, fermented foods and fibre-rich foods are what supports the second brain.
Some of my favourite fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and miso, but the list goes on and basically every traditional cultural diet has some type of fermented food they eat.
I recommend eating fermented foods every day, however, if you’re not used to them, you should start small. Since these foods contain live bacteria, they can lead to some bloating and gas if you eat too many when you haven’t built up a tolerance. One other thing to be mindful of is that if you have a major imbalance like leaky gut, candidiasis, sibo, or parasites, you might find that fermented foods just don’t work for you at all. In that case, I highly recommend getting in touch with a professional like a naturopathic doctor or nutritionist.
Fibre is also really important for a healthy gut microbiome. Ideally, you should aim for 25-35 g of fibre per day at a minimum. You’ll also want to have both insoluble and soluble fibre in your diet. Sources of insoluble fibre include celery, avocados, almonds, and beans, and sources of soluble fibre include chia seeds, flaxseed, apples, berries, and oats.
4. Eat Mindfully
I absolutely love that this was added to the newest edition of the Canadian Food Guide in 2019.
Digestion only performs well when the parasympathetic nervous system is switched on—in other words, when we are in rest and digest mode rather than fight or flight. In fact, the stomach juices that contain enzymes needed to break down our food properly only flows when we’re feeling relaxed—so it’s really important to only eat when you’re relaxed.
An analogy for this that I really like is that eating under stress is like putting a pot of food on the stove but not turning it on and leaving it for a few days. When the food just sits there, like it sits in your stomach when your digestion is turned off, it ferments, bubbles, and becomes gaseous… which of course leads to major digestive symptoms like everything in the Pepto-Bismol commercial.
Luckily, it’s really simple to eat mindfully. Just getting into the habit of taking a few deep breaths before every meal can make a huge difference in symptoms. You can also limit the amount of talking and conversing you do at the dinner table (especially stressful conversations like politics!) and avoid eating in front of your computer or phone- because multitasking is really a sneaky form of stress we don’t often think about.
5. Eliminate Triggers
This really goes along with what I mentioned before about the causes of low-grade inflammation like processed foods, refined sugars and oils, alcohol, etc.
Unfortunately, it goes beyond food to the chemicals we consume and absorb as well- whether that’s actually on our food (like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides), in the air we breathe (like car exhaust, fumes from adhesives and solvents), or whatever is absorbed through our skin from contact with cleaning products or chemicals in our skin care and makeup.
Our mental health is really affected by these things crossing the blood-brain barrier. And since our bodies don’t know how to properly eliminate a lot of these foods, they get stock-piled and stored in long-term storage: our fat cells. This contributes to inflammation levels and even worse- chronic disease if we aren’t careful.
So it’s very important to do your best to reduce your exposure to these things. The best way to do this is be mindful of the products you’re buying, and transition to only natural and organic skincare, makeup, body care, home cleaning products, laundry soap, etc.
As for food, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by buying organic produce and naturally raised meats. Because remember, you are what you eat right? But you’re also what you eat, eats. So, if you’re buying conventional meat from the grocery store that has been raised on a feedlot eating heavily sprayed grains, that poor animal’s inflammation will contribute to your own levels of inflammation as well.
6. Eat True to Yourself
As in be true to yourself and remember that no single diet is right for everyone. Each person has a different cultural and genetic heritage and therefore a different metabolism!
We’ve all heard of the Inuit people who eat a lot of whale blubber, meat, and fish, right? To contrast that, the traditional Indian diet is very low on meat, and higher in veggies, legumes, herbs, fruits, and grains. So, if an Inuit person and Indian person who ate only their traditional diets swapped places for an extended period of time, they would most likely experience a lot of digestive issues and inflammation as a result.
Your genes can also have an influence on the type of diet you should be eating as well. From genes that put you at higher risk of Alzheimer’s when eating saturated fats, to genes that inhibit your body’s methylation ability (affecting absorption of some B vitamins), there are many things to learn from a standard genetic test kit. If it’s something you’re comfortable with, it can be an amazing tool to learn about your body’s preferred diet.
7. Taste the Brainbow! Eat the Brainbow!
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you need to eat a variety of fresh, colourful fruits and veggies! Eating whole, nutrient-dense foods from the entire colour spectrum is crucial to obtain all your essential nutrients.
It’s really interesting to think about how the various colours of the rainbow correspond to nutrients that have specific health benefits. See the graphic below for an example of how red, green, and yellow foods differ in nutrients and benefits.
8. Diet isn’t Enough
As I mentioned at the very beginning—we need to reduce stress, eliminate inflammatory foods, and eat anti-inflammatory foods. We’ve already covered the last two with essentials 1 to 7, but reducing stress really is top priority.
This is where the “holistic” part of “holistic nutrition” comes into play. Health and wellness isn’t just about food, right? Our mindset and lifestyle play a major role in our ability to be resilient to stress. This includes movement/exercise, sleep, and other self-care activities that help minimize stress.
These things really shouldn’t be overlooked because they can make a world of a difference. Since I’ve already written several blog posts on cultivating a healthy lifestyle to help with stress, I won’t go over it again. But you can check out this blog on meditation, this blog on grounding, and this blog on how to improve sleep hygiene. Of course, many other stress minimizing techniques work as well, so it’s important to explore the ones that connect to you.
There you have it! Those are my 8 holistic nutrition essentials for beating stress.
I hope you found this post helpful and can use this information to help increase your resilience, no matter what life throws at you.