Stress. Constant, relentless, it keeps you from sleeping, zaps you of energy (just when you need it most), plays loose with your moods and locks up your creativity while seeming to vex you with more than the usual aches and pains.
Simply put, stress is bad news all the way around. It can be different, says Barb Heinen, certified holistic nutrition consultant at the Greensquare Center for the Healing Arts.
Diet plays a huge role in stress, Heinen asserted in an interview — both in promoting it and in fighting against it.
And among the worst foods to eat when we’re feeling stressed are refined carbohydrates and sugar. Both work to cause blood sugar imbalances, resulting in sharp rises and steep falls in energy levels, which in turn create more stress.
These foods are also acid-forming, so they flush minerals from our body, she said; and because they offer no nutrients, our bodies have to rob nutrients from our reserves just to digest them.
“The scary thing is that sugar lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as [pain medications],” Heinen said. “So we become addicted to it.”
Of course, occasional sweets, if you “eat clean” most of the time, don’t do any harm, she said. “It’s just that right now, they own us.”
So what should be the cornerstone of our diet? First and foremost, Heinen said, we should load up on colorful fruits and vegetables, packed as they are with antioxidants.
“That’s the No. 1 thing you can do. Choose real food, go as close to the source as you can and move away from processed foods.”
Next on the list are healthy fats. “Fats get a bad rap, but they are a necessary part of our diet.” Good-for-you fats include wild-caught salmon, mackerel and sardines, as well as flax seed, avocados, olives and olive oil, coconut and coconut oil and nuts and seeds.
Go easy on meats, but make sure the meat you do eat is of high quality: sustainably raised, grass-fed. Remember, you can also get protein from nuts, seeds and legumes.
As for grains, Heinen likes to promote those that don’t contain gluten, among them quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet and brown and white rice.
Gluten is one of the harder-to-digest foods that can tax our bodies further when we’re under stress; others in that category are dairy, soy, corn, conventional meats and chocolate.
And don’t forget about the beverages you consume, Heinen said, adding that it’s especially important to drink lots of water when you’re under stress. Her rule of thumb is to consume half your body weight in ounces of fluids every day. Purified water and herbal teas are great, and cultured drinks like kombucha tea and kefir bolster the immune system.
Strive to drink alcohol in moderation. “Once in a while, enjoy sparkling water with fruit in a beautiful glass so you don’t feel deprived, so it still feels festive.”
Because sleep is affected by stress, take additional measures to ensure a good night’s sleep, she advised. Minimize intake of caffeine and alcohol, and try to eat the biggest meal of the day in the middle of the day, or at least don’t eat the last three hours before bed.
Nutritional needs and levels of tolerance do vary from person to person, she acknowledged. No one size fits all.
“Slowing down and reconnecting with our bodies will tell us what works [for us] and what doesn’t,” Heinen said. “And it can be situational, where are you in your life, at what stage.
“But everybody benefits universally from a whole foods approach, from cooking more at home and eating nutrient-dense foods. And an active lifestyle, too.
“From there it’s tweaking.”