Magazine article American Nurse Today

Eating Better to Help Manage Chronic Stress: Building a Nutrient-Rich Lifestyle Can Help You Ward off the Effects of Stress

Magazine article American Nurse Today

Eating Better to Help Manage Chronic Stress: Building a Nutrient-Rich Lifestyle Can Help You Ward off the Effects of Stress

Article excerpt

LIKE MANY NURSES, you may experience stress frequently, both on and off the job. Chronic stress can alter your equilibrium (homeostasis), activating physiologic reactive pathways that cause your body to shift its priorities. Physiologic effects of stress may include:

* slowed digestion

* delay in reproductive and repair processes

* priming of survival mechanisms (respiratory, cardiovascular, and muscular) for immediate use

* depletion of the body's nutrients.

If you're under extreme stress, such as an immediate threat to survival (think of a close encounter with a bear), physiologic effects of stress help you survive. But when the threat is less imminent (for instance, when a recertification exam is looming), these reactive pathways can become dysregulated, leading to chronic disease, disability, and pathology.

To activate and resolve threats to homeostasis, your body needs fuel in the form of vital nutrients. If you ignore the demand for high-quality nutrients, you may find yourself engaging in stress-related eating behaviors, which compromise your long-term health and quality of life. Understanding the role of key nutrients and building a nutrient rich lifestyle are stress-management techniques you can incorporate into your daily self-care routine.

Why is a proper diet so important?

Your body can function at an optimal level only when you consume required nutrients on a consistent basis. Current guidelines for healthy eating, which are based on the latest research, emphasize the need to eat a variety of foods from each food group. Choose foods low in saturated fats and cholesterol; consume only moderate amounts of sugar, salt, and alcohol; and handle food safely.

Why are whole foods better than supplements?

Whole, unprocessed foods provide readily available nutrients the body can absorb and metabolize easily. They also reduce exposure to potentially allergenic or toxic food additives. Nutritional supplements are appropriate for people who have, or expect to have, dietary deficiencies (such as during pregnancy or breastfeeding). But supplement use can cause side effects and interactions. Whole, unprocessed foods are a healthier option.

Stress reduces digestive effectiveness by shunting blood to more vital organs, which promotes poor digestion and reduces nutrient absorption. So eating a nutrient-dense diet of high-quality whole foods is even more vital during stressful periods. An easy way to obtain key nutrients is to eat a whole-foods "rainbow" that incorporates fresh fruits and vegetables of every color.

Key vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals

The nutrients described below help the body restore homeostasis and replenish nutrient stores during times of stress.

(A) Vitamin A

Also called retinol, vitamin A is a key antioxidant. Stress leads to formation of free radicals, which can cause oxidative stress. In this condition, the body can't neutralize cellular metabolism byproducts, leading to an immunologic and inflammatory response. Vitamin A helps neutralize free radicals by adhering to the empty molecule in oxidizing agents, preventing free radicals from attaching to and attacking DNA and body tissue. Good vitamin A sources include liver, egg yolks, dairy products, orange produce (such as carrots and sweet potatoes), and green leafy vegetables.

(B) B-complex vitamins

As a group, the B vitamins help metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and help maintain cellular health and brain function. These water-soluble vitamins are readily eliminated by the body and need to be replenished regularly.

Thiamine (also called vitamin B1) boosts immunity by supporting immune cells. It can become depleted quickly during stress. Crucial to nervous-system functioning and carbohydrate metabolism, thiamine is found in fortified whole grains, enriched breads and cereals, pork, beef, duck, peas, and legumes (including dried beans, green beans, and seeds). …

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