Diet and Stress: Tips and Tricks

Diet and Stress: Tips and Tricks


The choice of title is deliberately provocative, in the sense that no diet is involved in the “front line” battle gainst nervous stress.

Stress has deeper origins, which can require even major lifestyle changes; sometimes, it is good practice to also involve professionals in psychological analysis and therapy, or even – under specialist medical prescription – to resort to the use of specific drugs (eg anxiolytics).

Nevertheless, an excessive and chronic level of mental stress can negatively affect the balance of hormone secretion. In this case, we are not talking about endocrine pathologies, but about paraphysiological alterations – usually transient or in any case solvable, but not to be underestimated.

It would be different if we took oxidative stress into consideration; in this case, the nutritional content of the diet, especially in natural antioxidants and enzyme precursors, would be the most relevant factor to take into account. Diets with this objective are generally defined as anti-aging diets.

Basic Stress

Why Are We All Stressed?

Analyzing the causes and effects of chronic stress, we can see how certain mood disorders – sometimes symptoms but often real neuroses – affect more and more people, more and more times in life and, alas, at ever earlier ages. These neuroses, also supported by organic factors – such as the abuse of psychotropic substances – have thus become a pandemic.

Summarizing what has been reported by some anthropologists, this would be mainly due to the fact that the human being fails to mature psychologically as much as on an intellectual level – this is true both on an evolutionary level and in the growth of the individual. This circumstance is much more serious than it seems.

Being animals, the satisfaction of basic needs is the basis of our survival. For almost all living creatures, they simply feed and reproduce. The human being is decidedly more complex, because among his vital needs, abstract elements also stand out, such as emotions and feelings – which are more intense in relationships with one’s fellow humans. It can therefore be deduced that, when these primary needs are not satisfied, our brain reacts to the “gravity of the situation” by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters typical of stress – hence the symptoms of depression, anxiety, etc.

For awareness and logic, the attempt to reduce basic stress should therefore start from the improvement of communication and psycho-emotional maturation; it would be impossible to improve relations with the community by disregarding these concepts, and this is the crux of the matter.

Humanity has not made itself so thanks to the ability to invent, but to communicate, which requires emotional intelligence or empathy – a psychological capacity – and mastery of language. Our current involution starts from the fact that we continue to “invent” in an attempt to fill psychological and communicative gaps, “reducing the symptom without treating the cause”.

The confirmation comes from the fact that humans are the only gregarious animal that tends to physically detach themselves from the community, but integrating other species into their own family nucleus (dogs, cats, etc.). If this were the right direction, the establishment of virtual relationships between people, nor the appearance of neuroses in domestic animals, would not be justified.

In summary to this simplistic and brief psycho-social analysis, we can conclude that the basal level of stress of Western man is so high as to make it unlikely that someone has not suffered from it in the past, does not suffer from it or will not suffer from it in the future.

Stress And Cortisol

Correlation Between Stress And Cortisol

The theme covered in this article is therefore well suited to modern man, chronically afflicted by psychological stress. In fact, we will talk about how to manage a general food program recommended for a subject prone to hyperadrenalism or hypercorticalism, that is, who produces excessive quantities of cortisol due to chronic stress. In practice, the anti-stress diet has two purposes: to interfere with the hormonal secretion of potentially harmful mediators (if in excess, such as cortisol), to buffer the undesirable effects it causes.

Many adults could suffer from an excessive secretion of cortisol, but they are unaware of their condition. This is because an exponential increase in the stress load has taken place in recent decades. In addition to the above, the economic crisis, the reduction in the job offer, the increase in taxes and prices have created a much higher load than our ability to manage stress.

Among the problems associated with chronic stress in Western man (in addition to insomnia, nervous breakdown, bipolar disorder/mood swings, etc.) there is a predisposition to weight gain, with consequent overweight or obesity and complications including in the most serious forms metabolic syndrome appears.

The most obvious advice, in case of chronic stress and consequent hyperadrenalism, is to change one’s living conditions (work, family situation and removing the various stressors, at least the main ones) wherever possible. But since in 90% of cases this is clearly not feasible, we resort to the doctor – or, in the worst case scenario, we let off steam in smoking, alcohol abuse, etc.

Below we will therefore talk about how to manage nutrition to prevent stress from negatively affecting weight, body composition and metabolic efficiency.

Carbohydrates And Cortisol

Eat Carbohydrates In The Right Amounts

We have said that the stress hormone is, almost par excellence, cortisol – even if it is not the only one, let us cite prolactin for example. Among the various metabolic effects of this chemical mediator we recognize a hyperglycaemic, glycogenolytic influence, therefore opposite to insulin, similar or complementary to glucagon and catecholamines.

Based on circadian rhythms, cortisol is highest in the morning and then gradually decreases by the afternoon; this is true regardless of external influences and food. In a stressed subject, the level will be even higher than the physiological level, with a consequent tendency to rise in blood sugar already fasting and to difficulty in muscle growth or recovery (if the subject practices sport). Furthermore, always in the context of body composition, it should be specified that cortisol is attributed to two diametrically opposed actions on adipose tissue, to which it is still difficult to attribute a logic: increase in lipolysis and increase in liposynthesis. In practice, in certain circumstances it facilitates the mobilization of fat and in others it optimizes the accumulation of fat. What is certain, however, is that the accumulation of fat in conditions of high cortisol is concentrated in the abdominal area, resulting in an android conformation.

But be careful, the glycemia oscillations due to stress (therefore to cortisolemia) should not be interpreted as a pathological form – for example insulin resistance or glucose intolerance – but as possible slight glycemic modifications which in the long term can have a significant impact.

A person with hyperglycemia who eats a carbohydrate-rich breakfast could make a mistake, further raising their blood sugar. However this is not said. Since cortisol and insulin are essentially antagonistic – the former is hyperglycemic and is secreted when blood sugar is low, while the second is hypoglycemic and is released when blood sugar rises after meals – a food stimulus could trigger the release of insulin, block the release of cortisol and restore homeostasis

What To Do

Choose The Right Breakfast

So, how to behave? The recommended choice would be to proceed with reasonableness by trial and error. Perceive the post-prandial sensation of various types of breakfast by changing the glycemic load. Then, since home measurement of blood cortisol is impossible, while blood glucose can be measured easily – albeit with relative accuracy – with an instrument called a glucometer, it may be a good idea to start monitoring fasting plasma glucose.

Protein And Muscle Mass

Cortisol, glucagon and catecholamines, while on the one hand they can cannibalize lean body mass, on the other they also dismantle the reserves of fat and carbohydrates. Therefore, if we pay attention to maintaining the nitrogen balance and to adequately stimulate insulin with the right amount of calories at a time – especially from carbohydrates – this picture could play in favor of weight loss.

To maintain the nitrogen balance, it is necessary to guarantee the correct intake of proteins, possibly with a high biological value, and to take care of carrying out weight training sessions dedicated to hypertrophy, which oblige the body to conserve muscle mass – considered indispensable at this point, not a simple aesthetic goal. Lean mass is in fact also important to keep metabolism, testosterone and endorphins production high and to reduce the possibility of gaining weight.

Other Tricks

If the subject is hyperstressed he should avoid excessive caloric restrictions.

Better to reduce the intake of nerve agents such as coffee, tea and theobromines, which would aggravate the discomfort.

To eliminate alcohol and cigarette smoke – or other abuses that generate chemical dependence.

It is advisable to remember to drink, since in the event of high stress, we sometimes tend to ignore physiological stimuli.

While waiting for an improvement in lifestyle, the person will be able to take advantage of his condition to lose weight while maintaining lean body mass. That is, he will be able to reverse the course by 180°, going from a person who gains profuse weight on his belly and viscera, to a person who maintains health and physical shape.


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