Eating for Lowering Your Stress

Eating for Lowering Your Stress!

11 Tips to Help You Reduce Fibromyalgia  Symptoms


foodstressDid you know that certain foods and eating habits can be serious stressors to the body?  It’s true!  Foods have an effect on stressed nerves and what you eat can influence how you manage that stress including how swiftly your body can be ridden from its negative effects .

Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain.  Not all types of stress are harmful or even negative.  There are a few different types of stress that we encounter:

Acute Stress, is very short-term type of stress that can either be positive or more distressing; this is the type of stress we most often encounter in day-to-day life (example: dealing with traffic, or skiing down a slope).

Eustress, is a type of stress that is fun and exciting, and keeps us vital (example: racing to meet a deadline or skiing down a slope).

Episodic Acute Stress, where acute stress seems to run rampant and be a way of life, creating a life of relative chaos (example: the type of stress that coined the terms ‘drama queen’ and ‘absent-minded professor’).

Chronic Stress, the type of stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like the stress of a bad marriage or anstresswoman extremely taxing job (this type of stress can lead to burnout).

Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response.  During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.

Chronic Stress has some negative implications on your health.  When faced with chronic stress and an over-activated autonomic nervous system, people begin to see physical symptoms.  The first symptoms are relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds.  With more exposure to chronic stress, however, more serious health problems may develop.  These stress-influenced conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • Depression
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Gastro-intestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • IBS
  • Acid reflux
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hair loss
  • Heart disease
  • Ulcers
  • Tooth and gum disease
  • Obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder
  • Low libido or sexual dysfunction

In fact, it’s been estimated that as many as 90% of doctor’s visits are for symptoms that are at least partially stress-related.  Muscle tension may be the number one symptom of stress, but more people go to their doctors and the ER for gastro-intestinal problems than all other physiological problems; the majority of which have a very strong stress component to them.  The connection of neural endings to the entire GI track is phenomenal.  This could explain the association between stress and the increasingly high incidence of problems like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, Crohn’s Disease and many others.

Food and stress — what you eat influences how you feel.

To keep stress, especially chronic stress, from damaging your health, it’s important to be sure that your body does not experience excessive states of this physiological arousal.  Certain foods and eating habits can be serious stressors to the body.  Foods have an effect on stressed nerves and what you eat can influence how you manage that stress including how swiftly your body can be ridden from its negative effects .

There is a cumulative effect of stress-prone problems associated with the stress, nutrition and disease scenario, which acts like a domino effect.  There are four main dominos.

Domino # 1: Depletion of Nutrients

poorcropThink about it…. The Stress Response is fight or flight; either action requires lots of energy. Stress utilizes many nutrients for energy production, even if you sit in front of your computer screen all day and stew over various problems. The water-soluble vitamins ( B &C) are greatly affected (remember that elimination of fluids is part of fight or flight response and in this process you can flush out the water soluble vitamins.) Also The B-complex vitamins (e.g., B-6, B-12, Folate, Niacin, Thiamin, Riboflavin), are used  in the process for energy metabolism.

One of the symptoms of chronic stress is fatigue, and this may come about as a result of depletion of these vitamins. Many of the minerals are also involved with energy production and will become depleted with chronic stress. Remember energy only comes from Carbohydrates and Fats (and in times of starvation, proteins) vitamins and minerals are regulators of these chemical processes. In other words, vitamin supplements do not count as a meal.

Most minerals are involved with 5-10 metabolic processes. Magnesium is involved with over 300 of these. Being deficient with Magnesium is not good!

The body requires a delicate balance of nutrients, yet also has an amazing ability to compensate… to a point. Then various physiological systems begin to show signs of dysfunction (e.g., nervous system, reproductive system, immune system, etc.).

Vital nutrients such as Vitamin C, B-Complex, Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, Zinc, and Copper are just some of the nutrients that get used up or depleted during times of chronic stress.

Domino # 2: Poor Eating Habits

badeatingVital nutrients are not replaced during stress-prone eating behaviors.  This would be a good time to introduce the concept of EMPTY CALORIES (foods with little or no nutritional value.) We know these foods well because they (junk food, processed food, fast food) comprise the majority of the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) And  yes, it is sad. By the way the opposite of empty calories is nutrient density. An egg is nutrient dense. Cupcakes, candy bars and soda are not.

By NOT replacing the nutrients we need, various physiological systems continue in a downward spiral of dysfunction. This downward spiral is considered a stressor to the body as well, thereby compounding the stress issue.

An example of not replacing nutrients might include a lack of essential amino acids (from proteins) that are needed to maintain the production of white blood cells.

Another example might include the lack of various B vitamins needed for energy metabolism.

Some of the various eating behaviors that lead to nutrient deficit includes such reasons as: lack of time, eating processed foods, junk foods, comfort foods, lack of variety in your food choices, lack of moderation, overeating, and even under eating.

Domino # 3: Foods that Trigger the Stress Response

foodjunkStressed people typically eat foods that promote the stress response.  Not only do processed foods and junk foods contain empty calories, they also contain substances that excite the sympathetic nervous system to release epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. Needless to say… if you are already stressed, this is like throwing gasoline on the fire. Processed sugar and processed flour are known to have this effect. The big substance that tips this domino over is a substance found in caffeine that really excites the nervous system. This, most likely is the reason WHY people drink coffee in the morning. But… it’s not just coffee. It’s also tea, sodas, chocolate (sorry) and “energy drinks.”

Salt falls in another category. Salt is known to cause water retention. This results in an increase in blood pressure. The typical American’s diet is LOADED with salt.

Foods  that trigger the stress response:

  • Refined sugar and products containing it
  • Processed flour – think bread, pastries, bagels, cakes, pizza, and others
  • Salt
  • Caffeine
  • Various synthetic chemicals (both internally and externally placed on your skin)

It’s true, Americans consume LOTS of sugar every day. Perhaps it’s fare to say that we have an addiction to sugar.

I like to challenge people to try going a day without ingesting sugar. In the Eat to Beat Fibromyalgia Challenge you are put to this challenge and most if not all people are pleasantly surprised to learn how easy it is to do and they also discover other more nutrient dense food choices that makes them feel satisfied and full of energy.

Even if you think you don’t  consume much sugar, read the food labels. It’s hard to avoid. By the way, the pancreas wasn’t designed to process this much glucose on a daily basis. This is why experts suggest that we have such a problem with Type II Diabetes.

Domino # 4:  Various Foods can Compromise the Immune System

What foods compromise the immune system? Let’s start with sugar.  This quote from nutritionist Nancy Appleton, Ph.D. captures it:

“The bottom line is that sugar upsets the body chemistry and suppresses the immune             system.  The stronger the immune system the easier it is for the body to fight infectious             and degenerative diseases.”

But there is a whole cadre of synthetic chemicals in our foods (and this list grows exponentially each year). Synthetic hormones, trans-fatty acids, additives, preservatives also top the list (many of which were grandfathered into our food supply without any research to know the ill effects. Red dye # 3 comes to mind). When the immune system works to rid the body of these substances it becomes compromised in its ability to fight off pathogens (microbes) that result in infectious diseases, etc. Immunology is a lot more complex than this article discusses here, but suffice to say that there are A LOT of toxins in the foods we consume and this distracts the immune system from other problems, both internal and external.

Here are some good choices to incorporate into a low-stress diet and tips for promoting a healthy immune system.

Tip # 1: Avoid Food colors

fooddyesThe substance that gives foods (fruits and vegetables) their color are called phytochemicals (e.g., bio-flavinoids.) For a great number of years researchers called these “non-nutrients”. Now they consider many phytonutrients (e.g., bio-flavinoids) essential in helping to fight cancer.

They may also act as anti-oxidants. (e.g., the red bio-favinoid in cranberries may be the active ingredient for urinary tract infections. ) Here are some additional websites for information on phytonutrients:

Tip # 2: Add Antioxidants

Most phytochemicals are known to have antioxidant activity. There is much talk today about antioxidants. Here is the simple low-down on all of this. Free Radicals are oxygen molecules with an aberrant electron. We breathe these in all the time. Metabolically speaking, this electron configuration causes damage to the following: Cell membrane (allowing things to go in that shouldn’t enter, and things to leave that should stay) DNA, RNA and mitochondria. To be blunt, Free Radicals are a hazard to the body’s integrity… at the cellular level. They are thought to be associated with the development of cancer and heart disease, perhaps other diseases as well.

By the way trans-fatty acids, a process to turn an oil (liquid) to a fat (solid) to delay rancidity also acts the same way, which is why trans-fatty acids (partially hydrogenated oils) should be avoided at all costs. Antioxidants come to the rescue by destroying Free Radicals. The four major antioxidants are: Beta Carotine (a precursor to Vitamin A) Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and the mineral, Selenium. Antioxidants are found largely in fruits and vegetables. Note: you are not going to find these in processed foods, junk foods, or fast foods.

Common sense would dictate that if we don’t consume these in our foods, we are going to have problems with cell integrity–all over the body. This can and most likely will lead to disease and illness.

Tip # 3: Choose Organic Foods (whenever possible)

In simplest terms, our foods are laced with chemicals:

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. (the term now being used is called “bio-burden”) when these show up in the body, (e. g. , the liver, kidneys, breasts and adipose tissue). Fresh strawberries can have as many as 70 different chemicals on them. Celery, tomatoes and coffee beans are not far behind. These chemicals are not only on the plants, they  seep into the soil, where upon the plant draws them into their stems, leaves and fruit. Merely washing off produce does not get rid of these chemicals!

Many of these chemicals are derived from petroleum (that’s right, fossil fuels.., the same stuff that is used to make gasoline). The processing of these chemicals produces “synthetic estrogens,” which, when ingested, mimic the female hormone, estrogen. Synthetic estrogens are frequently found in the biopsies of women with breast cancer. Is there a connection between various types of cancer and these chemicals? If you do a little surfing on the Internet, you will have your answer, but it won’t’ be research funded by the companies that make these chemicals.

For foods to be certified “Organic” the soil they are grown in must be clean of these chemicals for a minimum of three years. No exceptions! Sadly government regulations (due to powerful lobbying efforts) are loosening the definition of the word organic. Let the buyer beware. Being organic is like being pregnant: Either you are or you are not, there is no in between.

One comment I hear from my clients and students is: “Organics are SO expensive!” This is true and the reason is that currently organic farmers, unlike non-organic farmers do not receive government subsidies. A good resource to read is the acclaimed book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Poland.

Tip # 4: Drink Plenty of Filtered Water

filteredwaterBy and large, Americans are walking around dehydrated. We don’t drink enough water! Many beverages we do drink (coffee, tea, sodas, etc.) act as diuretics, meaning they increase urination, thus tipping the scales toward dehydration. Various studies show that our water supply is not as clean as we would like to believe. Tests show that many sources of city drinking water contain sizable traces of antibiotics, hormones from birth control pills and chemicals from agricultural run-off.

It is in everyone’s best interest to install a high-end water filter system in your kitchen to be used for all drinking water (and cooking). Remember to replace the filter once a year (or as often as needed). You should also know that at this time, there is no federal regulation on bottled water. Most bottled water is ordinary tap water, sitting in plastic containers on pallets, stored in warehouses  months before store delivery. It might be best to carry your own filtered water in a suitable water bottle.

Here is the bottom-line message about being hydrated: water helps flush out metabolites, waste products and toxins throughout the body ready for elimination. Dehydration will compromise this process, hence not flushing things out as they should be. How much water is enough per day? Well, the recommendation is the proverbial eight 8 oz glasses per day, but considering this recommendation when comparing a 120 lb woman and a 289 lb man working in the same office reveals it’s only a recommendation. Experts suggest the best indication of being hydrated is near-clear urine (by the way, dark urine may be a sign of dehydration).

Tip # 5: Reduce Your Caffeine Consumption

Caffeine, in all the sources it’s found in, tends to give the body a boost, a spike in the energy levels. Well, there is a reason for this.

A substance in caffeine (mentholated xanthines) promotes the release of epinephrine and nor-epinephrine from the neural endings. This may very well be the reason why you consume it. As mentioned before, if you are stressed (the physical symptoms include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased muscle tension, etc.) This will either increase these levels or keep them there longer. By the way, many people do not know that “decaf” is not the same thing as “caffeine-free.” Decaf merely means less caffeine than regular caffeine. Americans are not the only people with an affinity for caffeine. An article in the National Geographicmagazine (January, 2005) cited that caffeine is THE number one drug in the world. In simple terms, caffeine in excess amounts is stress to the body. If you are already stressed, it is like throwing gasoline on the fire.

While new research studies come out daily about the benefits of coffee, there are also negative effects too. Also, it’s always a good idea to see WHO is funding the studies. As a side note, many women who drink several cups of coffee a day are prone for fibrous tissues (lumps) in their breasts. While these are not cancerous, in essence, they represent the body’s inability to remove toxic substances.

Tip # 6: Beware of Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s)

Known in nutrition circles as “Franken-Foods,” genetically modified foods are also known as G.M.O,’s.

While it may seem advantageous to have tomatoes with the gene of a flounder fish that can sustain cold temperatures to avoid frost damage, the idea of tinkering with mother nature indicates that there can be some serious consequences.   A couple of years ago, there was a recall of many corn-based products (taco shells, corn flakes, etc.) because of the chemical pesticide, ROUND-UP inserted into the DNA of corn plants. The EPA, not the FDA deems this brand of corn a pesticide (a toxin). By the way, this is the type of corn fed to cattle to “fatten” them up for that all-American marbled beef look.

Sadly, it’s not just corn that’s been tinkered with. Estimates are as high as 60 percent of all grocery store foods are GMO’s and not labeled as such! The biggest concern today with GMO’s is the corresponding increase with food allergies. The three foods that were known to have caused allergies were milk, eggs and peanuts. Now we are seeing wheat, soy, and corn allergies as well. Moreover, there are foods we are not ever aware of that have been tinkered with. Simply stated, the human body has adapted over millennia with natural grains etc. Again, the best choice is to avoid or minimize your consumption of these foods, and the way to do this is by eating “certified organic” foods.

Tip # 7: Include Medicinal Herbs and Spices

medicinalspicesBefore the advent of processed foods and fast food restaurants, the majority of people cooked their meals at home. In each kitchen it was not uncommon to find a spice rack containing fresh spices and herbs (FYI: Salt is not an herb). Backyard gardens also contained herb plants including Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Cilantro, Oregano, Garlic, and many others.  These spices and herbs were not only added for taste, they had a well-known health benefit (essential oils of herbs enhance the immune system).

We now know that the leaves, stems, and roots of these plants contain phytochemicals such as bio-flavonoids and antioxidants. By now most people have heard of Echinacea, but there are several mushrooms (Shitake, Maitake and Reishi) that are known to enhance the immune system as well. Astragalus is also well recognized to boost white blood cells and of course Milk Thistle is known to help cleanse the liver of toxins. Most men today know the benefits of Saw Palmetto. Feverfew is recognized as  a remedy for migraines and it is a well known fact that garlic helps reduce cholesterol levels. Herbalists will also tell you that many herbs are known for their anti-microbial abilities (to reduce colds and flues). Sadly, most if not all processed foods, junk foods and comfort foods do not contain herbs and spices.

Tip # 8: Consume Free Range Meats

Free range means that cows and cattle are allowed to eat as they roam… anywhere–for their entire lives. Once born, many animals are quickly moved to factory farms and fed on feed lots (corn). Once again, corn is not a food source in their normal diet (see above slide on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, etc.). Also living in such close quarters gives rise to infections, hence more antibiotics. Hormones and steroids are also given to increase yield. Cows, chicken, lamb, pigs, salmon; I think you get the idea.

The best way to go is organic. Speaking of which, the word “Natural” doesn’t mean the same thing as “organic.” Close, but not the same thing.  The word natural is now used as a marketing term. Sadly, there are many foods marketed as “Natural” which are anything but! Cows (for dairy and hamburgers) are BIG business these days. I highly recommend buffalo. At this point in time, ranchers haven’t messed up this option–yet. I would steer clear of any chicken that is not organic, as they are now a vehicle for disseminating antibiotics and hormones. Once again, please consider reading the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Tip # 9: Eat lots of Fiber

peapodCurrent estimates suggest that Americans eat about 9 grams of fiber a day… if that. The topic of fiber (roughage) has been in the news enough that we all should know about this now. So, just to review: Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes (peas, beans, lentils, etc.). It is a compound in carbohydrates that is not digestible. We simply don’t have the enzymes to break this stuff down. As such, it acts like a broom in that it sweeps out both the small and large intestine, carrying with it things like fat molecules (which is why fiber is said to lower cholesterol) and even some toxins that haven’t made their way into the blood stream.

The World Health Organization suggests that each person consume 30-40 grams of fiber a day. Like your mother told you repeatedly, the message here is to eat a good amount of fruits and veggies each day. As one of my guest speakers said, “There’s not a lot of fiber in iceberg lettuce!”

Tip #10: Add Essential Fatty Acids such as Omega 3’s

OK, let’s review: Omega 3 & Omega 6 oils are essential fatty acids. This means that your body cannot produce them internally and hence they must be obtained from outside sources (just an FYI, your body can produce cholesterol all on its own). We have an imbalance in the American diet, in that our diet is overloaded with Omega 6’s (vegetable oils) and severely lacking in Omega 3’s. It is important to know that the Standard American Diet, which is high in Omega 6 oils tend to cause inflammation  by stimulating the immune system response, thereby leading to immune compromise or dysregulation.

Sources of Omega 3’s include cold-water fish (e.g. Salmon, Cod, Tuna) flax seed oil, walnuts, and a few other foods.

Why are Omega 3’s so important? Well for starters, these healthy fats acts as anti-inflammatory agents.  They are also essential for brain cells and we know how important this is. Research now suggests that Omega 3 oils may also help prevent cancer. Here is one more tip. If you choose salmon, I highly recommend buying wild Alaska salmon or Norwegian salmon, NOT farm bred salmon. This is known to have a high PCB content (a carcinogen). As a rule, restaurants serve farm-bred salmon (it’s cheaper). Here is a great website on the topic of Omega 3’s:

Tip #11: Food preparation is important

How food is cooked is as important as what you eat. For example, if you throw some veggies in a pot of water tosteamedvegetablescook, the water soluble vitamins will leach out into the water. So will some minerals. The end result is that you are not getting the nutrients you think you are getting and you are throwing away some really good water. Please, steam your veggies.

Next, it is a great idea to keep all of your cooking oils in your refrigerator. Oils tend to go rancid quickly. Some people suggest that rancid oils act as Free Radicals and we now know what these do in the body. Heat and light speed up the rancid process of oils. Most people keep their oils over the stove (heat). Not good! Also you might want to purchase oils that are best used for cooking with high heat, such as walnut oil or almond oil.

By now you may have heard that the material used to make Teflon non-stick pans, when used with high heat, changes its molecular structure to mix with the foods cooked in the pan. This plastic-based substance is now known to be linked with cancer. As with so many other nutritional behaviors we have substituted convenience for health. For this reason, it is not recommend to cook with Teflon pans.

Lastly, do not, repeat, do not cook food in a microwave oven! Whenever possible, use natural cooking methods and low to moderate cooking temperatures.

B-Complex is known as the “Stress Vitamin”

Because many of the B-vitamins are used to assist metabolic processes for energy production (fight or flight), the B-complex is widely known as “the stress vitamin.” You can walk into any store and find bottles in the vitamin section labeled “Stress Vitamins: B-Complex” (note: if you read the label, most likely you will see Vitamin C as well). These are the water-soluble vitamins, and in this case, what you don’t need/utilize your body, in all its great wisdom, will excrete (eliminate) as excess.  While we all need the B-complex vitamin, start with small does.

Actions you can take immediately to support your health:

salad2Eat at least one meal a day for your immune system.  Let’s face it, behaviors can be hard to change, and eating behaviors are among the hardest to change. Knowing what you now know, based on this information, I think it is easy to see that we tend to take our bodies and our health for granted, that is until something stops working well. Don’t try to change all eating behaviors at once. You will drive yourself mad. Pick one, master it and then try another habit to change or modify.

Make yourself a large raw salad to consume every day.  Add spinach, mixed greens, red onions, cucumber, grated carrot, black olives, avocado, sprouts, and any other seasonal vegetable of your choice.  Top it with some fresh squeezed lemon juice, some flax oil, and add some sunflower seeds for some crunchy texture (and zinc and vitamin E too).  Your body will thank you and soon you will find yourself feeling lighter and with more energy!

This information and the suggested tips are a reminder that our behavior has an impact on our health. Each day we can take steps to promote a healthy immune system, and contribute to our optimal well-being. Good nutritional habits serve as the foundation for this path to optimal health and eliminating fibromyalgia symptoms!

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