I always knew I was an emotional eater, but it wasn’t until I gave up sugar did I understand the full extent of it:
Had a bad day at work – come home eat chips, drink wine
Feeling moody – eat chocolate
Wanting a night in – eat chips and ice cream
Having a good day – buy treats from the bulk barn
It’s Tuesday – margaritas
It’s Wednesday – latte and a cookie
Tired from a long day – order a pizza
Grass is green…. You get the idea.
As you can see, sugar played a large role in how I dealt with stress. I was allowing myself to use my feelings as an excuse to eat foods that I KNOW would make me feel worse. I’ve had to kick a lot of old habits to the curb and focus on dealing with my emotions more responsibly this last month and a half.
I actually hate admitting all this, which is why I was putting off writing this blog. I would rather believe and have you believe that I eat what I should eat, when I should eat it, and that I love and dream about kale every night – isn’t that what nutritionists do? I’ll let you all in on a little secret though, I am still a work in progress. I’m not perfect and that is okay – nobody is.
I do however, commit myself to constant improvement. This year of no sugar is all about finding ways that I can improve my life. As a holistic nutritionist, I am aware that we are complex creatures and there is more to optimal health than what’s on our plates. Part of this complexity is our body’s reaction to stress. I have trained myself throughout my life, to react to stress by shutting down and turning to food for comfort. I tend to isolate myself and let the worry and anxiety build up inside, setting myself up for a losing battle. After a quick look at the mechanics of stress, I’ll talk about some of the methods I’ve been using to deal with my stress since quitting sugar.
First off let’s take a quick look at the actual physiological changes in our bodies that occur when we are feeling stressed. You may have heard of the “flight or fight” response. We evolved this response as a survival mechanism so we can react quickly to any threatening situations.
When we encounter a stressful event, our brain sends out a distress signal which activates our sympathetic nervous system by sending signals to our adrenal glands. These glands that sit atop our kidneys jump into gear and send out epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This surge of adrenaline causes our heart to beat faster to get more blood to the muscles, our pulse and blood pressure goes up. We start to breathe faster and airways in our lungs open up a little more so we can take in more oxygen, which then gets sent to our brain to increase alertness. Adrenaline also triggers the release of blood sugar and fats from storage in our body, this supplies extra energy to all parts of our body. All of this happens before our brain can even fully process what is going on. If we continue to perceive stress, a second system jumps into place to help us maintain. Our brains, pituitary gland and adrenal glands communicate to release cortisol. This keeps us on high alert. When the stress has finally passed, our parasympathic nervous system will dampen the stress response and get us back into a state of “rest and digest.”
This all sounds really cool, why wouldn’t we want to remain at this super human level of alertness at all times? Unfortunately, prolonged levels of stress and elevated adrenaline can damage our blood vessels and arteries and elevated cortisol contributes to the buildup of fat tissue and leads to weight gain.
Think of it this way – our fight or flight response disrupts any non-essential body functions. Digesting your lunch becomes unimportant if you trying to outrun a bull. However, our bodies can’t really distinguish between running from a bull and running from deadlines, traffic, or your boss. Many of us these days find ourselves in a constant state of low grade stress and because of this we are put ourselves at risk of health problems: depression, anxiety, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and of course problems with digestion.
With all of this in mind, I have committed myself to deal with stress in a more appropriate way. What does this mean? First off, prevention is key. So avoiding any unnecessary stressful situations and finding activities that help to build me up. Apologies to anyone whose parties I’ve been missing so far this year, but I’ve been trying to fill my time with things like book club, a new bootcamp at the gym, swimming, hikes with my family, reconnecting with friends at cool new restaurants and even just keeping on top of chores and renovations going on at the house. These things help to ease stress instead of adding to it.
I’ve been working on a bit of momentum of “just do it” since September and it has actually been helping! If there is something looming in the back of my mind, I tend to worry about it and if I don’t really want to do it, I put it off and continue to worry about it. The first thing I’ve been doing when I get to work in the morning, or sometimes before I leave at night, is to make a quick to do list of all the things I want or need to get done that day. I can then do a quick scan and see what is most important and work on those tasks first. Also crossing things off on that list makes me feel awesome!
Physical activity is an amazing way to deal with stress. I posted a question on my Facebook page about how you all deal with stress and most, if not all the responses, related to moving! Going for walks, hitting the gym, yoga or stretching, these are all amazing ways to help our bodies calm down. There is always something about going for a nice long walk that makes you forget about your problems and breath a little deeper.
Meditation is another way I’ve been trying to quiet my anxious thoughts. I’ve been going through the free first 10 series on the Headspace app and I’ve been loving it. It’s only 10 minutes per session, but it helps me to chill out and focus on the present.
Being prepared. When I take the extra time to plan out meals for the week and pre-make some side dishes or even a few meals on a Sunday, supper becomes much more enjoyable and gives me more time at night to go for a walk or do some yoga. Also packing up my gym bag and making sure lunches are packed before bed allows me to have a much calmer morning. Nothing is worse than starting off the day rushing around like a giant stressball.
Just doing things you like. It seems like we deprive ourselves of enjoyable hobbies, like painting, reading, knitting, woodworking, birdwatching, drawing, etc. Whatever it is that floats your boat, allow yourself to work on it a few times a week.
Watch what you eat. Some foods can aggravate your stress and some can help to alleviate it. I’ve had to cut back my coffee intake to one a day at the most and try to go without a few times a week. Although I love it, it is far too stimulating for me and I can warm myself up with a nice cup of tea instead. Foods like: dark chocolate (yay), leafy greens, turkey, organ meats, asparagus, and chamomile can help our bodies deal with stress. To avoid this post becoming more of a novel. I will leave you with this link which talks about more foods that can help ease anxiety: Mindbodygreen
Thanks for reading, stay awesome!