It might be surprising to learn that you could be creating unnecessary stress in your life due to your lifestyle habits and choices. In addition, these same choices and habits can make it more difficult to deal with the stressors that you just can’t escape. Not only does prolonged stress impact nutritional status and increase your nutritional needs, but your nutrition habits also affect how vulnerable you are to stress, the intensity of your stress response, and how the body responds to chronic stress. Poor nutritional status can also affect the risk for numerous chronic health conditions such as depression, cognitive impairment, heart disease, and diabetes. These facts illustrate how important it is to understand the relationship between nutrition and stress.
The better nourished you are, the better able you are to cope with stress. It is well-known that changes take place in the levels of circulating hormones when emotional or physical stress occurs, but the precise influence of a stress-altered metabolism on nutrient requirements is still being researched. The amount of stress the body can tolerate without significant damage depends on many factors, including nutritional status. Stress causes a general excitement that increases the body’s metabolism, or the rate at which the body changes food supplies into energy. In short, the body uses energy at a faster rate when stressed.
According to Deborah Kipp, PhD, RD from the College of Health Sciences and Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, “These changes, in turn, will influence the metabolism and, consequently, the requirements of nutrients.” Just as a speeding car needs more gas, a stressed body requires the right kind of nutrient “fuel.” Prolonged stress increases the metabolic needs of the body because stress hormones tend to accelerate heart rate; increase muscle tension; elevate blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; and cause a cascade of other metabolic changes (Yehuda & Mostofsky, 2006). These changes increase metabolism and accelerate your body’s use of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. As that usage changes, there can be a resulting increase in blood sugar, free fatty acids, and protein loss (negative nitrogen balance), respectively.
Our bodies are very efficient under stress, creating a plentiful supply of energy from carbohydrates for a time. But under high stress, without proper nutrition, proteins in the food or proteins from the muscles or body organs themselves are drawn upon and changed to glucose. This is much like burning furniture to keep the house warm. But what happens if your body’s “tank” is low on nutrition “fuel”? The nutrition you obtain from wholesome foods promotes optimal mental as well as physical functioning. The major nutrients obtained from a wholesome diet will include macronutrients, such as fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Each of these compounds is absolutely essential for normal metabolism, stress system maintenance, and mental function. When we consume them in the form of food rather than pills, we are more likely to get them in their proper ratios and avoid toxicity.
The bottom line is that all consumers should be much more aware of the foods they consume and the ingredients within those foods.